CAB - 7 Oct 2020 - 10 Oct 2020 - Advice

Education / Final decision on legal status of new college rests with government minister, council says

Councillors due to meet remotely on Wednesday in what will be the first meeting since Covid-19 restrictions were introduced

The NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway, one of the colleges earmarked to merge into one organisation. Photo: Shetland NewsThe NAFC Marine Centre UHI. Photo: Shetland News

THE FINAL decision on the legal status of Shetland’s proposed new merged college rests with the Scottish Government, the council has reiterated.

Education union EIS-FELA has been vocal in its opposition for the recommendation to have the new merged college – called Shetland Institute UHI – unincorporated, which it says would be the first direct privatisation of further education in Scotland.

A meeting of the full Shetland Islands Council (SIC) is due to take place virtually on Wednesday to consider the final draft of a ministerial business case, as well as approve governance arrangements for the new body.

It has drawn criticism from EIS-FELA, which says it is undemocratic to bar the public from the meeting. As it stands local media, however, will be able to listen in to proceedings.

Through new emergency coronavirus legislation council meetings can be closed to the public on health grounds.

The EIS would prefer to see the new merged college to be incorporated, as otherwise it could potentially result in the “privatisation of our public education”.

A report due to be presented to councillors on Wednesday, however, says in response to the EIS concerns that according to the Scottish Funding Council the final decision on the legal status of the new merged college rests with the Scottish Government’s education secretary John Swinney.

Back in 2018 councillors backed the idea of bringing the NAFC Marine Centre UHI together with the council-operated Shetland College UHI and Train Shetland together in a new entity under the UHI umbrella.

The current Shetland College is also not incorporated – one of six in Scotland to have that status.

The recommendation from the board set up to oversee the merger is for Shetland Institute to be unincorporated, with a private company limited by guarantee already registered for it to run through, but EIS said this means it would sit outside of governance arrangements for Scotland’s public sector further education colleges.

The council says being unincorporated means the college would be able to carry forward funds/hold reserves and would have less restrictions on fundraising.

Shetland College principal Jane Lewis previously said that the merged college would still be “accountable to many, many masters” in an “extremely tightly regulated” sector.

The council’s “considerations have been based on the sustainability of the tertiary education sector in Shetland and how it will be best placed to develop and meet the needs of the community and economy”, according to officials.

It said there would be an opportunity for EIS to raise concerns regarding the legal status during the forthcoming consultation stages with the Scottish Government.

The EIS has already obtained nearly 500 signatures on a petition against the proposed legal status of the new college, and at 12pm on Tuesday (21 April) and online protest will be held.

The union is also “extremely concerned about the lack of consultation and due diligence to ensure that public money is being well spent” while the coronavirus pandemic continues.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Our college members in Shetland, and those working in further education institutes across Scotland, have made it clear that we are opposed to privatisation because it is likely to negatively impact staff terms and conditions and students’ quality of education.

“EIS-FELA have submitted thousands of petition signatures in opposition to this privatisation. Now the council are seeking to use the Covid-19 pandemic to disregard the principles of democracy and due process. This is completely unacceptable.

“The council meeting is going ahead virtually this week, despite the fact that there are no new timescales for the merger or date for vesting of the new college, owing to the pandemic. This begs the question: why are the council insistent on going ahead with making a decision this week?”

At Wednesday’s meeting the report on the ministerial merger business case will be held in ‘public’ but discussion on transitional funding will be in private.

Councillors will also be given a general update on the SIC’s response to Covid-19.

It will be the first council meeting since mid-March, which was before restrictions on social distancing were introduced.