Minister proposes regional cluster plan for Scots colleges
Scotland's colleges are to be grouped into 12 separate regions and encouraged to work more closely together.
The plan was announced to Holyrood by the country's education secretary, Mike Russell.
He said the aim of the regional structure was to make the sector "more efficient and responsive" to the needs of students and local economies.
Mr Russell also published two reviews into the management of Scotland's colleges.
The minister said the system of post-16 education "serves young people in Scotland well", but there was no room for complacency and improvement was needed to maintain the best standards.
Mr Russell told MSPs: "I expect colleges to collaborate and plan together within 12 newly-created regions and I expect provision to continue to be delivered locally.
"We will now work with the sector and the Scottish Funding Council to put these new arrangements in practice."
He said the regional approach was proposed in two Scottish government consultations last year.
Mr Russell insisted regionalisation "has been strongly supported" by the college sector and others in their responses.
The politician also detailed the findings of two reviews - one by Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski and the other by Prof Russel Griggs.
Prof von Prondzynski, in his document titled Higher Education Governance Review, recommended that:
- Holyrood pass a law setting out the key principles of governance and management in the education sector
- a Scottish Higher Education Forum be established, convened by the Scottish Funding Council and chaired by the education secretary
- and the chair of a college's governing body be elected
Professor Griggs' Further Education Governance Review by Professor Griggs recommended;
- a move to a regional structure of colleges and a set of proposals for regional governance
- the removal of a rule debarring people over 70 from being appointed to the governing body of a college
- the Scottish government establishes its own leadership and strategic guidance of the sector through the creation of a new Further Education Strategic Forum.
Ronnie Smith from the The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union welcomed Mr Russell's "acceptance" of many of the recommendations set out in the Griggs Review.
He added: "The EIS remains concerned that Griggs's recommendations on regional structure may be perceived as a vehicle for delivering the cuts already announced.
"The formation of proposed Regional Boards will need to be considered more closely when we have more details.
"The EIS will be opposed to any merger purely driven by financial savings, delivering less teaching activity, centralised delivery or involving academic staff redundancies."
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, urged colleges to approach the changes with "an open mind".
He added: "Accountability is a key part of all publicly-funded organisations, and a greater role for staff and students in decision making would ensure that this accountability is enshrined throughout both sectors."
Labour's Hugh Henry, a former education minister, warned that Mr Russell should "not confuse accountability with ministerial interference".
Mr Henry said: "I want to see a clear indication of the boundaries between accountability for the use of public funds and the role of ministers."
The Labour MSP also raised concerns that "the agenda for regionalisation" was being "used as an attempt to move attention away from cuts, job losses, course reductions and lesser student choice".
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said she was "deeply concerned about the SNP's centralisation agenda and the increased meddling in the running of our colleges and universities".
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie MSP said: "If youth employment was a top priority for the first minister then he would have already reversed his cuts to Scotland's colleges with the extra money available from Westminster.
"Colleges are vital for helping people get up and get on especially in the current financial climate. These cuts will mean fewer college places."