City of Glasgow College has spent almost £1m of public money on PR, marketing, public affairs and events in recent years despite 100 staff being threatened with redundancy due to budget cuts.
In May, the college – the largest in Scotland – announced that a budget deficit meant it would be making significant cuts that could lead to 100 members of staff losing their jobs, the majority of them lecturers. This followed a round of voluntary redundancies last year.
Trade union representatives said the spending on “non-essentials” at a time of “swingeing cuts” raised “serious questions” about the management of the college.
The EIS Further Education Lecturers Association union claims that since November 2022 almost 40 percent of lecturers have either resigned, retired, or ‘volunteered’ for redundancy, which should mean compulsory redundancies are not required. Its members have been on strike for almost 12 weeks.
Opposition politicians called for the Scottish Government to intervene to ensure staff jobs were protected and savings sought elsewhere, adding that the further education minister must stop acting as a “bystander”.
But the college claims these public relations costs – accrued since 2018 – were all necessary as part of its annual drive to recruit students, and claimed that fewer students would mean fewer lecturers. It said all colleges were facing a financial crisis due to a Scottish Government u-turn on additional funding in May.
It accused the union of “worrying ignorance” and claimed that it had taken an “appalling stance” by calling for redundancies to be made from management or administrative roles rather than from teaching staff.
Figures revealed under freedom of information (FoI) show that the college spent £400,000 on digital marketing agency Anything is Possible between 2019 and 2021. It also had a public affairs contract with Dram Communications worth £230,000 between 2020 and 2023.
An additional £220,000 was spent on agency Stark Events, while almost £100,000 was paid to Halcyon, a Scottish PR agency, between 2018 and 2020. A further contract for public affairs – with no value attached – was published by the college on 26 September.
A further FoI request confirms the college pays for in-house communications and events staff including a director of communications with a salary of between £73,859 and £82,600, and a head of communications and marketing paid between £49,878 and £53,762. The college’s corporate team also includes a head of events and two other events staff, a studio and brand manager and an in-house designer.
The college’s principal and chief executive is Paul Little, whose salary in 2020/21 was nearly £170,000. His total remuneration package came to about £215,000.
Andrea Bradley, general secretary of Scotland’s largest teaching union, EIS, said: “Our expectation is that, at all times, college principals will prioritise spending on learning and teaching – this after all is why colleges and further education exist. Colleges are not businesses.
“They are publicly funded education institutions, with [monies] disbursed from the public purse to provide quality learning experiences for students, particularly those from working class communities. This provision is wholly dependent on the skills and expertise of college lecturers and other staff. Without them, quality education will not be possible in any college. “
At a time “swingeing cuts are being made to staffing and course provision at City of Glasgow College” she claimed, “massive spending on non-essential areas and the subcontracting of work to external private companies” raised “serious questions about the custodianship of public funds by the management of City of Glasgow College.” “
Lives were “being wrecked in the process”, she added. The union has lodged claims that several of the proposed redundancies are “discriminatory”.
A spokesperson for the EIS Further Education Lecturers Association (FELA) at the City of Glasgow College, called for a cost/benefit analysis of the spending to be done and for details of the lobbying and events commissioned from agencies to be made public: “We have previously asked management why they are spending so much money on marketing and lobbying firms,” they added. “We have had no satisfactory reply.
“We know that management ‘only’ [needs] another £400,000 of savings, so why are they not looking at alternatives to compulsory redundancy like stopping spend on external marketing and lobbying firms?”
The FELA spokesperson also claimed this suggestion was part of alternative proposals put to management previously, aimed at preventing redundancies. “A public sector [further education] college in Glasgow, with its own internal comms department, does not need to spend this sort of money on marketing and lobbying,” they added. “It smells rotten.”
In May a decision to provide an additional £26m in funding, pledged in last December’s budget by former finance minister John Swinney, was reversed by the Scottish Government.
At the time Colleges Scotland said its members were “deeply dismayed” claiming colleges were “already cash strapped” and being forced to make cuts to courses as a result of a lack of funding.
In September an Audit Scotland briefing identified “rising staffing costs” as colleges’ biggest financial pressure.
Pam Duncan-Glancy MSP, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson on education, said the Scottish Government failure to take the increasing financial pressures facing higher education seriously, had put jobs on the line and forced cuts across the board.
But she added: “The situation at City of Glasgow College is seriously concerning. The fact that they are pursuing staff redundancies, particularly given this new insight into its procurement and external spend, is worrying. I remain unconvinced that they’ve exhausted all options or that this is the last resort.”
She claimed that spending on services which could have been made available within the internal college resources “raises serious questions over whether some of these cuts to staffing could have been avoided, and on the actions that management were taking to address the severe deficit in the budget before it got to this stage,” she said.
City of Glasgow claimed its “flat-cash settlement” for the year, combined with 10 percent inflation” in costs, was equal to “a significant and unsustainable real terms cut”, which left the college no option other than compulsory redundancies.
A spokesperson said that it “claw back” of the £26m pledged to colleges has “exacerbabted an already challenging fiscal landscape”.
“In attacking the college for investing in these critical functions” , representatives of EIS-FELA showed “a worrying level of ignorance”.
“Colleges receive single year financial settlements and we do not have the power to borrow or build up reserves, so how we invest in previous years is separate to our financial position this year or in future years,” they added.
They claimed that in attacking the college for investing in “critical functions” like public affairs the union was exposing “a worrying level of ignorance”.
“Communications, digital marketing, PR and events – predominantly open days for prospective students – are vital components of successfully recruiting students into the College,” they added.
“Without these activities, we would be unable to meet our student recruitment targets, which would result in a substantial financial loss to the college as a consequence of not delivering teaching credits, therefore, not receiving payment for them from the Scottish Funding Council.
“Fewer students would mean fewer lecturers in the college, so it makes absolutely no sense to jeopardise their own members’ jobs in this way.” It claimed “a balance” of lecturer and core function roles were needed to ensure the college worked well for students.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said that decisions on spending, pay and staffing were up to individual colleges, but added: “It is the Scottish Government’s expectation that colleges will ensure that their spending is affordable, provides value for money and is to the benefit of their students, staff and regional economies.
“We recognise the crucial role that colleges play, which is why we have allocated £787m in funding for 2023/24, despite the unprecedented financial challenges facing [the] government. The college sector’s resource budget has been increased by over £168m since 2012/13.”
This story was co-published by The Sunday Post.
Photo credit: iStock and demaerre