Diversity is the key to unlocking the door to successful public services – allowing them to respond to the different priorities and circumstances faced by people across Scotland. That has been the consistent thread to Reform Scotland’s work over the past five years. If too much power resides at the centre, it can be difficult for individual bodies to develop distinctive and innovative approaches.
Our latest report, A New Deal for Scotland’s Colleges, continues this theme in looking at the further education (FE) sector in Scotland.
Unfortunately, colleges are currently faced with increasing central government control which stifles diversity and, as the Scottish Parliament’s education and culture committee’s report into the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill comments, there seems to be little justification for this.
Why should colleges not be afforded the far greater autonomy and freedom that universities enjoy? It is simply impossible to explain why, in Scotland, universities deserve independence and autonomy, but somehow colleges do not. This difference only accentuates the impression that government is content to have colleges deemed less important than universities.
Some may argue that universities can afford to be more autonomous because only 39 per cent of their income derives from Scottish Funding Council grants compared to 73.2 per cent of colleges’ income. However, the higher education sector earns 21.2 per cent of its total income from research grants and contracts, compared with only 0.3 per cent for further education. While not all research grants and contracts are public money, it is important to compare like with like when looking at the element of public spending within the two sectors and potentially public funding of the two sectors could be far closer to 73.4 per cent and 60.2 per cent respectively.
The recent debate over the decision by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to re-classify colleges into the general government sector has highlighted this lack of independence. This decision means that, as public bodies, colleges potentially would not be able to keep the income they generate from private sources and either hold it in reserve or reinvest it. The consequences of this reclassification are not the fault of the ONS; the ONS did not set up the legal framework within which colleges operate, it is simply reflecting it.
We believe that colleges would be better placed to respond to the needs and circumstances of their students and communities if they had greater autonomy, not less, and as the universities demonstrate, this can be achieved while still delivering publicly-funded services for government.
This is why we believe that legislation is needed to remove colleges’ status as public bodies and enshrine them as fully independent private charities, which would in turn enter into a contractual relationship with government to deliver certain services.
It is also worth highlighting that university education is best where universities are most free of government control. This is why the US and the UK dominate the league tables.
Reform Scotland’s 2009 report Parent Power, recommended that parents or guardians should be given an entitlement equal to the value of the average cost of educating a child in their local authority area and which could be used to send their child to any school which costs the same as the entitlement or less.
Building on that recommendation, we believe that when a young person turns 16 and is legally able to leave school, they should be able to use their entitlement to attend any school or college in Scotland. This could allow pupils to attend college to sit traditional school qualifications such as Highers, or to take up vocational studies, or a mixture of both with the money following the student. This would bring benefits to a huge range of students from the most academic to those struggling at school.
We also believe there needs to be a greater pride in the work done by our college sector. As a nation, we are quick to boast of university successes, or how we have the best school system in the world (a debatable point in more recent times), yet we are slow to recognise the social and economic achievements of the colleges sector. That absolutely must change.
If we are to re-invigorate the sector, we also have to change the way we perceive it, both individually and nationally. College is not a lesser choice, simply a different one. Any perception to the contrary is worrying and wrong. It is not the case that someone with a degree will automatically earn more than someone with a college qualification, particularly if you compare those with degrees in subjects, other than medicine and law, with qualifications gained in further education.
It is also important to stress that college can also be a vital step towards university for many people, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
As a result, it is vital that pupils in school are given the information they need to make informed decisions about their future, rather than the stereotype that you only go to college if you can’t get into university.
Although the government’s policy of increasing the university participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds is well-intentioned, there is a danger of unintended consequences.
Statistics indicate that school leavers from the most deprived areas of Scotland are far more likely to go to college than university to continue their education – either academically, as a route to moving on to university, or vocationally. Therefore, there is a danger that placing too great an emphasis on university could reinforce the suggestion that college is a lesser choice and diminish further the relative standing of FE. Further, making decisions which place greater emphasis on universities to the detriment of colleges could, unintentionally, harm the very people the Scottish Government is trying to help.
It’s time for a new deal for Scotland’s colleges. They deserve parity of esteem and can deliver for Scotland if given the autonomy to do it.
• Alison Payne is research director of the Reform Scotland, think tank.