Campaigners and teaching unions have warned that the privatisation of Shetland college could set a dangerous precedent that could see other colleges across Scotland move out of public ownership.
Shetland University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) – which is the first in Scotland to move from the public to the private sector – will officially take up its new status as a limited but not-for-profit company on Sunday, 1 August. The move was backed by Shetland Council and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).
It comes as the SFC published a review of the college sector earlier his month, which suggested ministers should consider declassifying colleges, which would give them the option of moving out of the public sector.
This change in their classification would require legislation, said the report, that would see Scottish Ministers, “remove their powers of direction and consent, their role in the governance of individual colleges, and college requirements relating to the Scottish Public Finance Manual [which advises on the use of funds] and national bargaining”.
Powers over the appointment of board chairs and members could be taken on by the SFC, the review added, noting that benefits and risks must be weighed and lessons learned from the privatisation of colleges in England.
The Scottish Government will consider its review in coming months.
Lack of college oversight
Meanwhile Shetland college’s leadership claims privatisation will enhance educational and training opportunities on the island. But teaching union the EIS and other campaigners claim that the move, which means Scottish ministers will no longer have oversight of its management, is “an affront to our education system and democracy”.
The union, which has opposed the move since a member vote in 2019, claims it could negatively impact staff contracts and working conditions, the number of courses available to students and leave decisions to award high levels of pay for management to go unchallenged. Colleges run privately will still receive public funding but are allowed to build-up their own reserves.
The EIS along with opposition politicians is also concerned about the lack of political oversight that the privatisation of Shetland college has received. Although a 12-week ministerial consultation period was mooted by the Scottish Funding Council last June, as it was one of a few colleges that were not incorporated when structural changes were introduced. This, said the government, meant it could not intervene.
But now the union is raising fears that both the lack of oversight in the Shetland move and the SFC’s recommendation to consider further privatisation, are connected to conflicts of interest within the public funding body.
Several of the SFC board members have senior positions at Scottish colleges while others have current or former board memberships, leading to claims by the college sector could end-up policing itself. Some, it is alleged, could stand to benefit from the move to privatisation.
In 2019 the Cumberfort-Little report – co-authored by Dr Paul Little, an SFC board member as well as principal and chief executive of City of Glasgow College – recommended that Scottish Ministers consider asking the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to revisit its current classification of Scotland’s colleges, a process that allowed for them to become private companies. It was not taken forward then, but campaigners fear the latest SFC recommendation might add weight to the argument.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary for the EIS, claimed the union had “campaigned tirelessly” for years but had been unable to strike on the issue due to legislation for staff whose contracts were subject to TUPE.
“Our members now need to live with insecurity and worry over the future of public further education in Shetland, in the knowledge that they can only be empowered to take any action when there are redundancies or their terms and conditions are threatened,” he said.
Flanagan added: “The EIS believes that education is a fundamental right which needs to be well funded, accessible and sustainable. Intrinsic to that belief is that education should be publicly funded and therefore the public, via elected representatives, should have input, oversight and scrutiny of our education system.
“For [the SFC] to allow further education colleges to be taken out of public oversight and scrutiny and have the ability to build up unspecified reserves of tax-payers money is an affront to our education system and democracy.”
He claimed the public body’s recent recommendation that all further education colleges are de-classified as public entities was “ideological”, with the suggestion that the SFC was given powers to appoint college boards instead of ministers was “cynical at best”.
“We cannot have the same people running Scotland’s colleges as those with direct oversight of them,” he added. “We maintain that key aspects of national bargaining and governance should remain with elected representatives of the Scottish Government – not people on boards with their own private interests.”
Recent research by The Ferret highlighted that members of Scotland’s public boards often have multiple roles. For example, Mike Cantlay, the chair of the SFC, is also the chair of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and he has held multiple other positions including chair of Forth Valley College, Visit Scotland and as an advisory board member of Scottish Enterprise.
Andrew Anderson, branch secretary of EIS Shetland College, said the Shetland move had led to “feelings of insecurity for staff”. He claimed a restructure was due “in the coming months” with job losses planned. “Staff are concerned for their own futures and for the future of accessible public education in Shetland,” he added.
He claimed the decision was taken by the college board, which was appointed without election by Shetland Council and backed by advice by the SFC. A local petition and postcards sent to local politicians were ignored, he added.
In Scotland there are 26 colleges across 13 college regions, which according to Colleges Scotland are serving 239,004 students in 2021 and deliver an estimated 70million hours of learning in a wide range of subjects from healthcare to STEM each year. They also support modern apprenticeships.
Scottish FE lecturer John Kelly, an EIS Education Lecturers’ Association (FELA) representative for West College Scotland, said the move was also concerning for staff across the college sector, especially other small UHI colleges.
“Staff are very, very worried that this model will be applied in more UHI colleges,” he said. “Privatisation of any form of service, but of education in particular, introduces alternative aims and purposes for the organisations.”
Cat Hobbs, founder and director of campaign group We Own It, claimed the importance of the sector meant privatisation of the publicly-funded Shetland College was “alarming”.
She added: “Education is not something to be bought and sold. The proposed absence of direct oversight from the Scottish Government sets an unacceptable precedent in terms of accountability, leaving uncertainty over who would pick up the pieces if something went wrong.
“This is a dangerous experiment that the people of Shetland and those studying and working there shouldn’t have to put up with.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of England’s National Education Union called for lessons to be learned from south of the border claiming the privatisation of Shetland college was “a backwards step that would lead to potential for far more privatisation in the Scottish system”.
She claimed the incorporation of colleges in England, which led to privatisation, had been “a disaster on many levels” and had fragmented the sector. Colleges, she said, increasingly acted like businesses, driven by commercial objectives and expansion rather than as public institutions serving the community.
“Staff pay and conditions have suffered massively with longer hours, pay cuts and even the growing use of casual and zero hour contracts,” she added. “At the same time the marketisation of further education has resulted in college CEOs being paid eye-watering salaries. This move is anything but progressive and, based on England’s experience, should be resisted.”
Paul Sweeney Labour MSP for Glasgow said it was “highly regrettable” that privatisation had gone ahead without scrutiny and questioned the lack of oversight ministers would now have, despite the fact that it would continue to be predominantly public funded.
“This is the first time that a college in Scotland has been transferred from the public ownership into private control and sets a dangerous precedent for any future transfers of ownership,” he added. “The bottom line is that Scotland’s educational institutions should not be profit making enterprises, they should be there to serve and further the life chances of the communities who rely on them.”
Enhancing student experience
However those backing the move – which will also involve a merger of Shetland College UHI, NAFC Marine Centre UHI and Train Shetland, to create Shetland UHI – insisted it would “enhance” student experience.
A Scottish Funding Council spokesperson said the privatisation had gone through after consultation that “gathered views from a wide range of interested parties, including students, staff and employers”.
“The new college will deliver a curriculum connected with, and responsive to, industry, student and local community needs as well as enhancing the student experience, providing more opportunities, educationally, socially and pastorally, than can be achieved by separate entities,” they added.
Shetland UHI would continue to be required to meet the SFC’s expectations of good governance, they continued, and to provide “fair access to tertiary education for communities on the Shetland Islands” as well as ensure “quality of the student experience”.
“Our ambition is for a progressive and sustainable college sector that provides the best learning experience for its students and supports the needs of regional economies,” they said.
In a joint statement Shetland UHI and the University of the Highlands and Islands said the development involved “ambitious plans for expanding provision into new areas in line with Shetland’s economic development”.
Professor Jane Lewis, principal designate of Shetland UHI, added: “I look forward to working with everyone at Shetland UHI, and our partners, to build on the legacies of the merged organisations and deliver inspirational learning, influential training and innovative research rooted in the heart of Shetland’s community.”
A spokesperson for Shetland Council said: “[This] will ensure that high quality further and higher education, training and research activities will flourish in Shetland in the future and benefit our community.
“Staff and students have contributed to the work to achieve the merger and the Council received independent expert advice which informed the final proposals in the Ministerial merger business case.”
Higher and Further Education Minister Jamie Hepburn said ministers had no role in the decision to establish the college as a not-for-profit company, as it was not incorporated under the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act.
He claimed any bid by the college to be incorporated would need to be recommended by the SFC, adding: “Should we receive a recommendation the new college be assigned to the University of the Highlands and Islands, we will undertake a consultation before reaching any decision. Parliamentary scrutiny and approval will also be required.
“We are currently considering the recommendations of the Scottish Funding Council Review and will respond in the autumn.”
This story was co-published with the Sunday National.
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