Jewel in educational crown or a second-class service?

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IT represents one of the biggest changes to further education in the Capital for a generation.

Two of the city’s three colleges are poised to merge within a year, forming one of the biggest institutions of its kind in the UK, with 20,000 students across Edinburgh and the Lothians – and all by August next year.

The marriage of Jewel & Esk and Stevenson colleges has been heralded by their principals as the key to reinvesting in further education in the city, ultimately expanding what is on offer to students in key subjects that are most likely to get them work. With a wider choice, students should also find it easier to tailor courses to exactly what they – and potential employers – really want.

But not everyone agrees that “big is beautiful”. Critics fear the merger will lead to some courses being closed, in order to avoid duplication, leaving some students to travel across the length of the city to learn instead of attending classes on their doorstep.

So what will it all mean for students? Will they be better or worse off should the move go ahead as expected?

“This all started from the position of students,” says Jewel & Esk principal Mandy Exley.

“One of the big wins is very much around the ease of progression for the student through a curriculum.

“A student starting an access into learning course would be able to progress all the way through seamlessly within one single organisation, sometimes through to degree level.

“Ultimately we may be offering more courses in some areas – our aim is to grow courses which are relevant to the economy.”

But what worries Miles Dibsdall, the principal of Telford College, the only city college not to get on board with the proposal, is that the bigger college could lose its strong links with the local communities it serves.

He describes a “Tesco approach” to further education in Scotland, turning colleges into supermarket-style facilities where the same thing is on offer everywhere, and raises concerns that forcing students to travel across the city for classes will simply drive them away.

“For some of our learners, college is about a second chance and 40 per cent of students come from the local area,” he says.

“The colleges are completely different areas of town and you have to say to yourself that’s why they were put there.

“I feel quite strongly about community cohesion and having that kind of choice.”

Mr Dibsdall said that he saw “no educational reason” for Telford to be part of the merger proposal, adding: “I think you would have to be naive to think that a merger won’t mean job losses.

“This will be a rationalisation – that’s what a merger gives you.”

At Jewel & Esk, Ms Exley is keen to stress that the proposed merger is not driven by cuts and money- saving measures, it’s about expanding and moving forward to provide the best services possible for students.

“By coming together and being more efficient in the way that we do things, we will free up funds for reinvestment,” she says.

“The purpose is not to save money, it’s to grow quickly and allow us to reinvest.”

Lecturing staff, however, are concerned about the potential impact on their working conditions. Penny Gower, president of the EIS union’s Further Education Lecturers Association, says: “The EIS position is to support mergers only if there are clear educational arguments.

“They haven’t yet been forthcoming, so we are awaiting that.”

For Ms Exley and her Stevenson counterpart Brian Lister, the opportunity of creating a more efficient super-college, with courses better tailored to the needs of 21st-century students, is too good to be missed. Others, however, remain to be convinced.