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Education / Concerns from union as council approves college merger

The Scalloway campus of UHI Shetland, formerly known as the NAFC Marine Centre. Photo: Shetland News

CONCERNS have been expressed by the local arm of Scotland’s lecturers’ union after plans to merge the isles’ tertiary education, research and training sector were given the thumbs up from Shetland Islands Council.

The Shetland EIS FELA branch said in a statement that it was “very concerned” over the planned financial model for the merged college, which includes an anticipated cut in full-time equivalent jobs from 113 to 99.

It said the model could “severely curtail the ability of Shetland’s tertiary education sector to ‘prioritise inclusivity and diversity’.”

The branch also claimed a lack of consultation over how the curriculum may look.

The merger proposal was approved by the full council on Wednesday after being backed by three other committees earlier in the week.

The plan would see Shetland College, NAFC Marine Centre and Train Shetland conjoin as a new independent college within the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) network by August 2020.

The council currently operates Shetland College UHI and Train Shetland, while Shetland Fisheries Training Centre Trust oversees Scalloway’s NAFC Marine Centre UHI.

The merger plan has to be approved by the fisheries trust at its next meeting on Monday, however, before it can be set in stone.

The merger is supported by the UHI and the Scottish Funding Council, who have said they are open to providing funding during the transitional phase.

The two bodies wrote in a joint letter to SIC chief executive Maggie Sandison this week to add that the “university will work with colleagues in Shetland to identify new areas of curriculum and research to meet the needs of the community, its employers and its students”.

The full business case on the plans, written by project manager Tommy Coutts, said the merger 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”.

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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”.

But at the heart of discussions this week among councillors was the effect the merger could have on the curriculum on offer to students.

Education and families committee chairman George Smith questioned if the curriculum needed for the coming years could be delivered if the merger’s “financial envelope” – which juggles a cut in staff with an expected income increase of £600,000 – was set in stone.

Accountant Janice Thomason said at Wednesday’s full council meeting that the finances were open to modification. “It’s a model, and it obviously could change,” she said.

The local EIS FELA branch commented before Wednesday’s meeting that it was “encouraged by the statements in the business case which state that tertiary education, research and training have a ‘vital role in delivering improvements to the economy through skills development, training, research and providing varied and high quality options for school leavers’.

“This commitment and the assurance that lecturing staff will continue to be included in national bargaining arrangements are welcome,” it said.

But the branch said the business case “seems to over emphasise balancing the books, rather than detailing how we can continue to provide much valued community and socially based learning that is flexible and accessible to a very diverse range of potential students.”

“This change in emphasis would ensure individuals and groups are still given the opportunity to grow and develop their skills, knowledge and confidence locally,” it continued.

The union branch questioned the £12.2 million savings claim, saying that much of this is coming through “paper costs” such as reduced rent on property, and that the only saving to the public purse is the planned £650,000 decrease in staff costs.

It also said that lecturers have not been consulted on “any future curriculum for a merged college and no details of any proposed curriculum have been provided in either the report, at the college lecturers JCC or at the Shetland College Board meeting.

“Whilst EIS FELA welcome the opportunity for future consultation, the business case approved, effectively means that these consultations will not allow staff and unions to influence the decision making process in any meaningful way,” the branch added.

“This contravenes the council’s policy on organisational restructuring.”

Highlands and Islands Students’ Association vice-president Sorcha Kirker, meanwhile, told Wednesday’s full council meeting that there had been an “incredible effort” to involve students in the process.

“The majority of students think this is the best way forward,” she said.

Kirker added that students at the three organisations are already working together. “They are already doing this on the ground.”

The decision on Wednesday to approve the merger was moved by college board chairman Peter Campbell, who said it was the “day of reckoning” for the project.

“We know it’s been a long and drawn out process, matched in many ways by Brexit,” he said – although he added there had not been as many daily developments on the merger as there have been at Westminster recently.

“Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” he said, looking ahead to the future.

Smith seconded, but he repeated his concern over the sustainability of the curriculum.

Councillor Alastair Cooper, meanwhile, added that he would like to see more investment in college equipment.

“I think the college needs to modernise its kit for the students to work with, and that’s not been mentioned here,” he said.

Council leader Steven Coutts stressed that when thinking about the merger the local authority “must be risk aware, not risk averse”.

A shadow board is due to be formed to lead the process of merging the three organisations, bringing representatives from all parties in addition to staff and students. A new principal would later be appointed.

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