Scotland’s colleges are in crisis. That’s the message from staff speaking in Learning the Hard Way, Unison’s report into Further Education in Scotland.
Our colleges have been hit by a perfect storm: £53m cuts, legislation forcing them to refocus on full-time courses, a large-scale college merging programme reducing colleges from 37 to 20, and one in ten jobs have been lost. Our colleges are vital, they play a crucial role in lifelong learning and the health and wellbeing of our country. They are where people go to find a better future; where women return to education to lift themselves and their children from poverty and where industry gets its skilled workforce.
They are where many return to learn. Courses like car maintenance or cookery are a vital stepping stone for many. Often they are life changing, particularly for marginalised or lonely people, offering mental challenges and social interaction, improving physical and mental health for all.
Yet we have 135,000 fewer students, half the part-time courses have gone and 80,000 fewer women go to college. Unison is the biggest trade union in Scotland, we do not stand by when those we represent get a raw deal.
Our college activists were concerned about how staff were weathering the storm. This report shows that, if anything, our activists have been over optimistic.
Only 15 per cent of staff said that college services had improved over the past few years. In fact 64 per cent feel the service has declined, 77 per cent are doubtful services will improve within a year, 90 per cent say colleges are under funded, 70 per cent say trust levels in management are low. In short, morale is rock bottom.
Audit Scotland confirms that staff are delivering. Despite the turmoil, they work long hours to make the sector work.
Managers and ministers need to start to listen to college staff who say the sector needs a funding shot in the arm to reverse the decline. This problem cannot be talked away with warm words. We are walking into real industrial relation problems. Staff need pay and conditions which reflect their skills and effort. Scots from ordinary backgrounds need access to further education.
Unison members will continue to work with the Scottish Government to make that vital difference. We care about our students. But we will fight for every person who one day might need a decent college to build a better life for them and their families.
Danny Phillips is communications officer for Unison Scotland