College merger worth looking at, says Wishart

Merging parts of the NAFC Marine Centre and Shetland College to save money is an idea which merits care­ful consideration, according to col­lege board chairman Allan Wish­art.

His remarks come after finance minister John Swinney last month announced £74 million-worth of cuts to Scottish colleges’ budgets over the next three years. The announcement, contained in last month’s budget statement, prompted national college groups to warn of a “bleak future” for the sector.

It is not clear precisely what the cuts will mean for further education in Shetland. But with the colleges’ other main source of income, the SIC, faced with finding £26 million of its own cuts between now and 2014 there is certain to be consider­able pressure on the resources of both colleges.

NAFC director David Gray was handed additional responsibility for Shetland College, Train Shetland and adult learning services back in February. That arrangement is for an initial three-year period following the retirement of college director George Smith. Mr Gray is currently on holiday, but Mr Wishart said he believed it was worth looking into whether a merger would lead to sav­ings.

“I certainly couldn’t rule it out,” he said. “Maybe we have the best op­erat­ing model possible, but personally I think we should look at it and see if there are possibilities of savings or efficiencies on adminis-tra­tion [and] the running of the whole thing to enhance, or at least maintain, the good standards we have.”

Mr Wishart, who recently took on the mantle of college board chair­man following Iris Hawkins’ retirement, said the last thing any­one wanted was to see courses being guillotined or student numbers cut back. He is keen to stress the impor­tance of a strong college presence to help keep well-educated young people in Shetland.

“I have a fundamental argument about this,” he said. “Years and years ago we exported a lot of our brains, and the result was that many of them put down roots, got jobs and never came back. This is an opportunity in the longer term to keep young people here – it’s so important for Shetland long-term that the college is supported.”

Following the latest University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) meeting in Inverness, Mr Wishart said it was clear Shetland College’s core strengths were its courses in textiles, design and music. It is hoped that renewable energy-related qualifications can be offered in the future.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott feels the SNP government is “forcing” university and college mergers upon institutions on the mainland. He said the question of whether a mer­ger could happen here was “a really tricky one”. The idea was first moot­ed more than a decade ago.

Mr Scott hopes it will be possible to protect key courses such as the marine centre’s cadet pro­gramme, while still allowing people to take HNCs in a wide range of subjects at the Gremista-based college.

“I feel for them because they’ve been put in these circumstances by the national cuts imposed on the college sector right across Scotland, where the very clear political intention is to force mergers,” the MSP said. “That may be the result in Shetland. They need to absolutely work out the areas that work really effectively for Shetland [and] protect those things against funding cuts. If merger is what happens then we’ll have to live with that.”


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