There’s been a lot of press coverage recently for NUS Scotland’s “Fund Scotland’s Future” campaign on the issue of college funding. As an organisation, the NUS does a lot of excellent advocacy for students the length and breadth of the country, attempting to secure the best possible deal for our young people. Their steadfast advocacy for an education system free of up-front or back-end fees was just one campaign I was privileged enough to support and to continue to support. However, I’m afraid that I cannot support their most recent campaign around college funding, and I wanted to state my reasons for this publicly.
Scotland’s budget is under extreme pressure. As well as the overall budget for Scotland being shrunk by more than 11 per cent between 2010-11 and 2014-15, the UK Government is cutting its own Further Education budget by £1.1bn over the same period, which affects the Barnett consequentials for Scotland.
In the face of these unavoidable cuts, the Scottish Government is doing what it can to invest in, and help, Scotland’s further education sector. The extra £11.4m allocated to student support in last year’s budget, as well as the Scottish Government funding for over 116,000 full time equivalent (FTE) students in 2013/14, will help colleges preserve wide access at a time of significant challenge.
In particular, due to my experiences as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands board, I strongly support the reforms being made in college regionalisation. The process of regionalisation will help to target resources where they are most needed, breaking down institutional silos and improving the learning experience for students. While support for this process is not universal in the sector, it has been welcomed by many principals and will undoubtedly lead to long-term benefits for students and colleges alike.
Although it is disappointing that more money cannot be found for colleges at this time, I fully believe that the money that has been invested in future years will help to shield the further education sector from the cuts being imposed by UK Government decisions. I’m also wary that, due to the restraints on the Scottish Parliament’s financial powers and the severe cuts being made to its budget, extra money for further education would result in cuts elsewhere, reflecting the incredibly difficult decisions that must be made by the Scottish Government in maximising the impact of the money available within these constraints. Reversing a £34.6 million cut in colleges would just mean £34.6 million worth of cuts elsewhere, a Sophie’s Choice that none of the other parties have proposed a solution to. All that we can do with the current powers available to Scotland are re-arrange the deckchairs on the Coalition’s Titanic.
Having said all of that, I’m still very open to meeting with students and student leaders from across the sector to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing our young people. It’s vital that the energy and engagement these issues develop in our young people is harnessed and encouraged, and that no citizen is ever made to feel disconnected or discouraged from taking part in the political process.