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Colleges sector ‘in crisis’ over funding, MSPs warned

The comments were made before the Public Audit Committee on Thursday (Jane Barlow/PA)
The comments were made before the Public Audit Committee on Thursday (Jane Barlow/PA)

Scotland’s colleges sector is “in crisis”, a union official has told MSPs.

The comments from EIS national officer Stuart Brown came after an Audit Scotland report found there had been an 8.5% real-terms cut in funding this year.

Auditor General Stephen Boyle said the sector is “facing uncertainty” about how it will operate in the future.

Speaking at a meeting of the Public Audit Committee on Thursday, Mr Brown said: “The sector is shrinking.

“The college sector is in crisis. The EIS and EIS-Fela has been saying this for months, we wrote to every single college principal and College Employers Scotland to ask them to publicly back us for an emergency funding package.

“Not one reply. Not one.

“That’s really disappointing, to say the least.”

College Employers Scotland (CES) described Mr Brown’s comments as “incorrect and misleading”, claiming they had responded on the day of his call for an urgent funding package seeking more clarity.

“We sought further detail on the amount of money being looked for and the timescale for its delivery. This clarity was never forthcoming from the EIS-Fela,” said CES director Gavin Donoghue.

“Employers have consistently advocated for additional funding for the college sector.

“By the time of the EIS-Fela’s emergency funding call in May 2023, colleges had already provided a budget submission in November 2022 that specifically asked for money to cover trade union pay claims, as well as a transition fund to manage job losses if money for these pay claims could not be provided.

“College Employers Scotland remains committed to working with the trade unions on speaking to government about increased college funding, so that the sector speaks with one voice to ensure colleges continue delivering the world-class learning experience that students deserve.”

Addressing the committee, Mr Brown continued: “The leadership of this sector need to stand up, with us, and call out what’s going on.

“We need to address this together, we need to bin the adversarial nature that has become the culture in this sector and work together to address the crisis.

“That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to move forward without a devastating impact of cuts, of job losses, of cuts to course provision that effects communities up and down Scotland.

“I think we have to be plain about it – to not recognise the crisis in colleges is to not recognise reality.”

Derek Smeall, principal of Glasgow Kelvin College and representing the College Principals’ Group, told the committee that “long-term chronic under-funding of the sector” had led to cuts.

He added: “It’s now got to the situation that when we talk about efficiencies, there is no fat on the bone, we’ve been cutting into muscle for several years now and now we’ve got to the extent where we’re actually downsizing, and it’s the only way we can actually remain solvent.”

Decisions on reducing staff at his college, Mr Smeall said, are not made on teaching standards, but because “I simply don’t have enough money to pay the bill”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government recognises the crucial role that colleges play and it is hugely encouraging that new data shows student satisfaction levels have increased across all levels of study and are now the highest on record.

“Despite unprecedented financial challenges facing Government, we remain committed to supporting our colleges and will bring forward details on how the reform of post-school education can support the sector to continue to provide opportunities and help to meet Scotland’s economic needs.”