SIC stops short of pulling plug on college merger

The board of the NAFC Marine Centre continue to harbour reservations about the planned merger with Shetland College.

A MOVE to abandon plans to merge Shetland College and the NAFC Marine Centre was defeated amid a heated debate among SIC councillors over the future of further education in the isles on Wednesday afternoon.

Efforts to bring the two colleges together have been stumbling along for over three years, with several members questioning whether any progress has been made amid resistance from the NAFC board towards the idea.

Councillor Drew Ratter’s motion to ditch the merger and form a newly independent Shetland College instead was defeated by 13 votes to four during a full council meeting in Lerwick Town Hall.

Ratter tore into the ailing endeavours to reform the isles’ college sector, saying UHI further education regional board chairman Dr Michael Foxley had told him the UHI was “absolutely incandescent with rage about the whole business and staggered at the way the council has been staggering around in circles for three and a half years”.

He said there was a risk that the UHI would remove control over the tertiary education sector from Shetland altogether.

The struggle to push through a merger began back in 2012 but NAFC board members are concerned amid uncertainty over the level of future funding under a jointly governed college. Other hurdles include how the fisheries college’s pension scheme would be incorporated.

SIC members were discussing the latest report from council development director Neil Grant, which advocated pushing ahead with an “integrated management structure” between the NAFC, Shetland College and Train Shetland.

Councillor Drew Ratter said UHI was "absolutely incandescent with rage" at the time taken over the planned college merger.

The report also asked councillors to approve plans to join up governance arrangements between the two college boards, promote collaborative working between all staff and students, and establish confidence about medium term funding arrangements.

A letter from the NAFC, signed by fisheries college chairman Davie Sandison, categorically stated that its board “do not accept the four recommendations” in the council’s report.

It said there were “issues of confidence from all sides because of the length of time this has taken and the amount of detail that still has to be worked through”.

Interpretations of the wording, however, varied wildly with SIC leader Gary Robinson pointing out that the letter went on to extol the virtues of “moving forward in the spirit of partnership” with Shetland College.

The letter does end on a more conciliatory note, talking of the “bright future” of tertiary education, training and research and saying NAFC board members “look forward to working with you so that we can deliver a positive outcome that is to the benefit of all”.

But Ratter said the situation had descended into “such confusion and such a buckle, aimlessly orbiting for such a long time” that he felt compelled to speak out.

“If this is not sorted in very short order, they’ll simply remove control over tertiary education,” he said. “The NAFC has said no – what don’t people understand about this?”

He said Shetland College had been a story of “growth and ambition and improvement” for many years, but “that confidence and that direction sort of ran into the sand a year or two ago” around the time that joint principal David Gray left for Canada.

Shetland College was left “without any kind of clear method of governance at all”, with its board “deprived of all decision-making powers” as a result of changes under then council chief executive Alistair Buchan.

Ratter viewed the prospect of recruiting an interim joint principal as “pretty much an impossibility” at this stage.

Introducing his report, Grant said there had been some fundamental issues to work through including how to integrate the two organisations’ pension schemes.

Since a merger was mooted in 2012/13, the colleges and Train Shetland had “worked very hard to reduce their cost base and have taken almost £1 million out of the call on the council’s funding”.

In 2015/16, however, the council was likely to spend £2.5 million – £300,000 in excess of what it budgeted – on the colleges. Grant said that demonstrated how “staying as we are” is not an option.

He said it was important Shetland ceased being “internally competitive” for students and spoke with a “stronger, clearer voice” when it comes to attracting support from UHI and the Scottish Funding Council.

Gary Robinson secured members' backing, by 13-4, to press ahead with attempts to unify the colleges.

“We need to listen to the messages that they’re giving us,” Grant said. “We need to have a joined-up curriculum, a business plan and a curriculum for research.”

Robinson said failure to achieve a single college would bring “real, real problems”, but pushing ahead with integration of their boards and management was a concrete move towards “having something in place by September”.

“Going down any other road at this stage is liable to create considerable risk for both colleges that are involved in this,” he said.

SIC education and families committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart, however, had become “increasingly concerned over the past few months about the pace of this attempt to merge the two colleges”.

While she had “huge respect” for the NAFC as an institution, they “find it easy to keep dragging their feet on this matter” and “every time there is a delay, people in Shetland College are suffering from this”.

“The place has been in limbo for far too long,” Wishart said. “We need to get the college away from the dead hand of the council, appoint a principal, change the governance so the board has some teeth.

“When I saw the letter from the NAFC, I realised they can keep delaying this as long as they like as it’s not going to make any difference to them.”

Councillor Jonathan Wills, meanwhile, said that to “repeat a failed experiment over and over again is a sure sign of madness”. He wanted to see an independent college securely funded by the council and government.

While he, too, was a great supporter of the NAFC, Wills questioned whether the SIC could still afford to fund it. He pointed out that Shetland’s seafood sector has sales in excess of £350 million and suggested that a “half a per cent levy on that would easily solve NAFC’s problems”.

But college board chairman Peter Campbell felt the NAFC letter “does not accurately reflect, as learned from conversations, the trustees’ views”.

He said the process had been frustrating but “we should not turn our back on the whole project, we should let it go forward with a firm commitment to it being moved as speedily as possible”.

Councillor Allan Wishart said he could see both sides and there was a “clear message coming out that the council is running out of patience, whatever happens”. But it was not yet the time to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

Shetland News has approached the NAFC Marine Centre seeking clarification of its position on the planned merger.

A UHI spokeswoman said it was “a matter which should be decided by our partners in Shetland”, adding the university was “working to support our partners in making the choices which work best for them”.

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