Scottish Colleges in Crisis

The neglect of our colleges sends a clear message to working class students. That is why they are joining the fight for the future of further education, writes Sher Khalid-Ali.

There is a crisis brewing in Scotland’s further education sector, and the government appears quite happy to ignore it. As the academic year ends, thousands of Scottish students are finishing their courses with no official results because of EIS-FELA’s action short of a strike (ASOS). Lecturers are enforcing a ‘resulting boycott’ which means that students’ results are being withheld from college systems and so will not be officially recognised until the dispute over pay is resolved.

Students have been left facing a summer of uncertainty over their grades. Colleges are closed for the summer break without a resolution. Students going on to higher education have no idea how their progression routes will be affected. Lecturers are prepared for full strike action in the new academic year, meaning that students are unlikely to receive results on their return to colleges in August either.

I am an adult learner, returning to education after a decade. This already brought its challenges, but with the added stress of the uncertainty that this action brings, it has really soured the student experience. I am part of a class of amazing women who have overcome addiction, mental illness and various other socio-economically inflicted issues, which has made it even more painful that despite committing to our academic success, the reward has been withheld from us.

We understand why our lecturers are taking this action and we unequivocally support them. What we’d like to know is why the government doesn’t value college students enough to intervene in this dispute. Lecturers are devastated that this has been allowed to continue and it is quite obvious that nobody was prepared for ASOS to outlive the academic year. The government has sent a clear and concise message to working class students: we do not care enough to intervene in a college dispute, like we did with the schools.

It seems incomprehensible that the Scottish Government claims to want to eradicate poverty from our society yet it has ground one of our most utilised mechanisms of social mobility to a halt through chronic underfunding. In deciding not to intervene in the pay dispute they have grossly underestimated the power that lecturing staff hold, and how much depends on their goodwill to keep the college sector in motion.

Students have been told that the Scottish Government cannot intervene with national bargaining and has no intention to intervene despite colleges being financed with public money and therefore being part of the public sector. Through our group, Student Action, we have spoken to student after student both on picket lines and across social media and every one of them believes that college management should be subject to the same levels of scrutiny as the rest of the public sector. They have been allowed to partially privatise education and turn colleges into businesses run by CEOs who use public money to float their vanity projects. One college spent £250,000 on COP26, none of which did anything to lower the college’s emissions, which rose the following year. One Principal spent eight weeks in the USA at a cost of £50,000 to his college. Another employed a private photographer on an academic salary. Meanwhile, students suffer the well-documented decline in funding for colleges. £26 million was withdrawn from the sector earlier this summer, which the Scottish Government claimed was necessary to “prioritise spending within the education budget”. And the reduced budgets do not diminish the autonomy of college managers and their accountability for how the money they do receive is spent. A system of colleges being run by new Principal-CEO hybrids heralds the beginning of the managed decline of further education and the further exclusion of working-class people from our education system.

Follow Student Action at @StudentActionFE.

Sher Khalid-Ali is a social sciences student at New College Lanarkshire and a member of Student Action.