Education / Council committees back college merger

Shetland College's main Gremista campus.Shetland College.

PLANS to merge Shetland’s tertiary education, research and training sector have been backed by the council’s college board and education and families committee.

College board chairman Peter Campbell said on Monday morning that it was the “most significant meeting that the college board has ever held”.

But education and families committee chairman George Smith raised concerns over how an anticipated reduction in staff – combined with a desire to increase income – could affect the curriculum available in Shetland, expressing worries about capacity.

A full business case which is being presented to councillors this week recommends bringing together Shetland College, NAFC Marine Centre and Train Shetland as a new college within the UHI network by August 2020.

After being approved by the college board and the education and families committee, the report is now due to be heard by the policy and resources committee on Tuesday before going up in front of the full council the following day.

The Shetland Fisheries Training Centre Trust, which operates the NAFC Marine Centre UHI in Scalloway, is due to discuss the report on 17 December.

Shetland Islands Council operates Shetland College UHI and Train Shetland.

The full business case, which was written by project manager Tommy Coutts, says the recommended option would save £12.2 million over a five-year period through “streamlining and maximising the efficiency of the college structure and curriculum, whilst improving outcomes delivered for students and staff”.

It said the “core reason for creating a new college is to ensure that every learner has access to the right programme at the right place and time”.

The report added that the three education bodies have an estimated combined funding gap of over £2 million in 2018/19, and it warned that the status quo is not “financially sustainable”.

Merging Shetland’s further education and research sector has been in the pipeline for years, and the report acknowledges that “staff morale has suffered considerably as a result of ongoing uncertainty”.

Campbell opened the college board meeting by noting the Town Hall bells which had just rung before quoting Shakespeare in which it was said that the knell “summons thee to heaven or to hell”.

Smith – a former principal of Shetland College – asked numerous questions related to the possible effect on the curriculum of the proposed merger, which has the support of UHI and the Scottish Funding Council.

“I have been trying to tease out whether or not there’s a worthwhile curriculum…in the financial model,” he said.

It was reiterated that the curriculum model running alongside the merger plans is a guide and that it could change.

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said an effective tertiary sector was “absolutely critical” to Shetland’s ten year plan to encourage people to live, work, study and invest in the isles.

“Education is key at ensuring that the gap in health and wellbeing outcomes are addressed,” she said.

Smith asked a number of questions about what impact the merger and the reduction in staff could have on the curriculum, with Conor Healy of auditors Deloitte saying that bringing together the three institutions would remove a “duplication of effort”.

“I’m concerned that questions about curriculum are being answered by an accountant,” Smith said – although Healy retorted that he was an auditor, not an accountant.

Smith also questioned what the “safety net” would be if enrolments did not meet expectations, with Sandison confirming that an independent college could hold reserves.

The south mainland councillor said the merger was a bit of a “leap of faith” but added that he would support the college board backing the move in view of other council committees holding more talks.

North mainland councillor Emma Macdonald, meanwhile, said the merger would be “just the beginning” for the future of education in Shetland.

A similar tone provided the backdrop to Monday afternoon’s education and families committee meeting, with Smith repeating his questioning.

Martin Tregonning stressed that the “most important resource is the staff” in the sector and warned that finding the right principal will be key in the success of the merger.

He also asked where projected staff savings would come from – with accountant Janice Thomason highlighting that there will be opportunities for early retirement and voluntary redundancy.

A video was displayed at both meetings showing students who spoke positively about their college experience, and the prospects of a merger.

Councillor Catherine Hughson questioned if there were any negative comments, but Sandison said the students are already on board.

“They are ready for it and they see the benefit of a Shetland experience,” she said – something which Highlands and Islands Students’ Association vice-president Sorcha Kirker echoed.

Smith also sought assurances over what will happen to funding for apprentices studying away from Shetland, as well as what constitutes “best value” in a non-financial sense.

After seconding Smith’s call to back the merger, Campbell reverted to earlier in the year when he called the long-awaited progress on the merger the “beginning of the end”.

“We’ve now got beyond the beginning of the end,” he said.