Under-funding further education harms economy - Sue Webber

Two things might surprise readers this week. First, normal business has continued in the Scottish Parliament while the SNP leadership contenders trash Nicola Sturgeon’s record to persuade the members they are what Nationalism has been missing. Second, from time-to-time MSPs from all parties work together.
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the LothiansSue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians
Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Lothians

Tuesday this week was a good example. As Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan squared up to each other to claim their First Minster hadn’t done the work to prepare Scotland for independence, MSPs were getting on with the less glamorous job of debating the role of further education institutions.

Less glamorous perhaps, but the health of our FE colleges is a lot more important to the future of thousands of people than hypothetical wrangling over fantasy nation-building of which the polls show the public is tiring.

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The same day, a new report was published by the cross-party Education, Children and Young People Committee into the effects of the new regional organisation which reduced the number of Scottish FE colleges from 41 in 2011 to 26 now, with Telford, Stevenson and Jewel & Esk combining to form Edinburgh College ten years ago.

To a degree it has been a success, producing economies of scale and giving the new colleges the ability to form partnerships with big private organisations. But the committee unanimously agreed that more government funding, more flexibility, and clearer priorities are needed to put the sector on a truly sustainable footing.

It’s no secret FE colleges have been starved of resources while coping with complex reorganisation, and it’s a small miracle they continue to make such a positive impact on the employment and education landscape, with 277,620 course enrolments in 2020-21.

But the fact is the number of college students has fallen by over 140,000 since the SNP came to power, and the colleges receive £2500 less per student than universities. With many students using FE colleges as a gateway to degree courses, there is little justification for the discrepancy.

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Colleges deliver high-quality, highly respected qualifications and professional training, but are doing so with their hands tied by an out-dated and inflexible funding model which makes investing in their own futures all but impossible.

Just keeping the classrooms wind and watertight is a challenge and Audit Scotland warned of safety concerns in a briefing which showed a £321m shortfall in maintenance budgets since 2018-19, and with a host of net zero commitments to meet by 2045, the situation is only going to deteriorate further without a cash injection.

But it’s unrealistic to simply expect governments to write ever bigger cheques, and empowering the institutions to work more closely with private enterprise will reduce pressure on the public purse and improve industry collaboration which is crucial to keep pace with the break-neck pace of workplace change in the digital age.

In return, colleges can reach out to Scotland’s small enterprises to fill their training needs and provide a proactive service to support what is, after all, the backbone of the economy. With around 106,000 small companies employing 44 per cent of the workforce and generating 38 per cent of national turnover, according to the Scottish Government’s 2021 Small Business Survey, it’s big business.

The SNP leadership candidates are big on freedom, so the winner can start by giving our colleges more liberty.

Sue Webber is a Lothian Scottish Conservative MSP

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