Scots universities could merge in education reform

A shake-up of Scotland's college and university system is planned with some institutions merging, Scotland's education minister has said.

Mike Russell insisted changes were needed in order to provide the best opportunities for young people in post-16 education.

The future merger plan was revealed in a statement to MSPs by the minister.

He added that his proposals would improve opportunities for young people and better support jobs and growth.

The reforms would also see Scotland being maintained as a world leader in university research and skills, training and learning opportunities would be given to all 16 to 19-year-olds in Scotland.

Mr Russell said students needed the right support and to that end the government was working towards delivering a minimum income of £7,000 to those in post-16 education.

The minister told the parliament: "Ideally I would wish to see emerge regional groupings of colleges, with a spread of specialist, higher-level and access-level provision delivered locally, greater collaboration between universities, with the possibility of mergers where that makes educational and financial sense."

Mr Russell said that his reform plan was "long overdue".

He believed post-16 learning was good but not ambitious enough.

The minister said: "Today marks the start of a new future for young people.

"Every young person going through school and benefiting from Curriculum for Excellence should have the opportunity to realise their ambitions and improve their life chances.

"This is why we have made a pledge to provide every 16 to 19-year-old with a learning or training opportunity.

"Enabling our young people to reach their full potential and realise their ambitions must sit at the very heart of all post-16 learning."

In August, a review of post-16 education concluded that poorly performing colleges should be merged, change their leadership or drop some of their services.

Willie Roe, who is chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, was asked to undertake the review of the vocational education and training available to people over the age of 16 living in Scotland.

'Clear and easy'

In the wake of that report Skills Minister Alasdair Allan said it was vitally important that everything was done to support the country's young people to develop the skills and knowledge they needed for the workplace.

First Minister Alex Salmond reiterated the focus on Scotland's teenagers by announcing in the government's legislative programme for 2011/12 that he would ensure every 16 to 19-year-old had a place in learning or training by the end of this financial year.

Image caption The shake-up focuses on post-16 education

Mr Russell said that the transition from school to a college, university, job, training or modern apprenticeship should be a "clear and easy process for our young people".

He added: "I believe we can make the choices for young people clearer, the opportunities more accessible and the overall learning journey much smoother - and faster where young people want it be.

The Scottish Funding Council, which is responsible for handing out £1.5bn each year to colleges and universities, said it would work with the government to help deliver Mr Russell's proposals.

In a statement it added: "It's important that we think and act progressively to ensure that we are giving people the very best opportunities in the right places and at the right time.

"An improved connection between everything that is offered to learners in further education, higher education and training is an essential part of achieving sustainable economic growth and ensuring future prosperity."

'Alarm bells'

Ken Macintosh, Scottish Labour's education spokesman, said: "The minister needs to tell us which universities and colleges face merger. He should also tell us if the principals of our universities and colleges were consulted before this statement was made.

"There's a real lack of detail in his statement and he should bring forward some real answers for the further education sector without delay."

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: "We need to provide clearer choices and increased aspirations for all students, but Mike Russell and the SNP have utterly failed to deal with the key issue which is threatening all aspects of post-16 education.

"The decision about how we fund one part of the education system has important consequences for how much we can afford to spend on other education programmes."

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said: "It is hard to see how this top-down restructuring will improve the experience and opportunities for students, or morale amongst college staff."

However, the University and College Union Scotland welcomed the commitment to broaden access to higher education and fund world-leading research.

The union said it was pleased that ministers had recognised the wider benefits of education and agreed to provide more support for people on low incomes and part-time students.

'Real concern'

John Spencer, convenor of Scotland's Colleges' Principals' Convention, said they would not "shy away from further reform where it benefits learners and the economy" but said it was a "radical agenda with a challenging timescale".

"Our very real concern in the direction of travel for the government is that they appear to be seeking efficiencies in having fewer colleges, but delivering the same teaching activity to the same numbers of learners."

The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland "strongly welcomed" the government announcement on reforms, in particular the commitment to a £7,000 minimum income for the poorest students.

Union president Robin Parker said: "Students across Scotland will be delighted that the Scottish government has placed such a clear priority on improving student support and making access to education fairer."

Alastair Sim, from Universities Scotland, said: "Universities have proven themselves to be proactive on this front as there have been close to 10 mergers over the last 20 years alone.

"It is absolutely right that mergers should only be taken forward where there is a strong academic and business case."

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