A fraught council meeting on Wednesday voted in favour of taking the next steps towards ‘merger’ of three educational establishments, although councillors were aware the charity behind NAFC Marine Centre had already rejected its proposals.
The decision, which is the latest step in the coming together of Shetland College, the NAFC Marine Centre and Train Shetland, followed a heated debate on the report and a letter from Shetland Fisheries Training Centre Trust, which had been circulated to councillors the previous day.
There was also disagreement over whether the council stands at greater danger of “reputational risk” if it ploughs ahead with the troublesome venture – a move described as “madness” by one councillor – or ditches it after three-and-a-half years of “little progress”.
An amendment, which would have effectively seen the process shelved in favour of the council supporting Shetland College, was heavily voted down by councillors who embraced a positive interpretation of the SFTCT letter, signed by the charity’s chairman David Sandison, rather than the stark rejection taken by a handful of councillors.
SIC political leader Gary Robinson persuaded councillors that there was enough common ground between the council, which runs Shetland College, and the NAFC, both part of the UHI, to make a go of things. But the chamber heard that the collaboration had to be progressed urgently or funding was at stake.
Mr Sandison had excused himself from the meeting along with councillor Mark Burgess, as both are on the SFTCT board.
Mr Sandison said later that there was “not an awful lot between the position of the NAFC trust and the council/Shetland College” and that the main difficulty was in the order of progress being identified.
The NAFC, Mr Sandison said, had frequently been the leader in the collaboration, but was approaching the process as an equal partner with the Shetland College. He dismissed suggestions that the NAFC had been “dragging its feet”.
He said that it had to be clear that the idea of merger was now over, but that didn’t mean the institutions could not have shared governance.
Mr Sandison said the letter had to outline the SFTCT’s concerns about the proposals in the report, but had also said where the trust was aligned with the council.
He added that the two organisations were moving towards the same position in parallel, but taking a different approach.
Drew Ratter, who moved the amendment, said he had spoken to the UHI’s chairman of the further education regional board. Mr Ratter said that the UHI was “absolutely incandescent with rage about the whole business” and “staggered by the way the council was moving around in circles for three and a half years”.
He warned further delay will “result in the removal of FE funding from Shetland”.
“It is such a confusion and such a buckle and has been going on aimlessly orbiting for such a long time,” he said. He described the process as “moving round and round in circles while Rome was burning”.
“We have tried and tried and tried for three, nearly four, years and achieved nothing at very considerable cost.”
He said that his experience with the Shetland College had been one of “growth, ambition and improvement,” but that “confidence and direction ran into sand” a year or two ago. Staff had told him they did not see how the process was workable.
Mr Ratter added that with such a clear rebuff from the NAFC, moving ahead with the plan would be going back to “wandering around in the wilderness”.
Director of development services Neil Grant, who is to take the issue forward, said that staying still was not an option.
He said that Shetland College needed to address the issues it had with “limited strategic and management resources”. It was still possible, he said, to meet key criteria like appointing an interim joint principal for the unified colleges by the May deadline.
The report, signed by various committee chairmen, sets out four key steps:
• An integrated management structure;
• Joined-up governance;
• Promoting collaborative working;
• Establishing as much confidence as possible about medium term funding for tertiary education in Shetland.
But the letter from SFTCT rejects all four recommendations and outlines its own plans for moving ahead, including greater co-operation between the three organisations, setting up a “strategic steering group” and appointing an interim joint principal.
Mr Ratter questioned where there was any ambiguity in the trust’s letter. He was echoed by Jonathan Wills who asked, somewhat rhetorically, whether the letter was saying “yes or no” to the council report.
He said that the message from the NAFC was “very clear” and that the “issues are not resolvable”.
Dr Wills added: “To repeat a failed experiment over and over again is a sure sign of madness.”
Chief executive Mark Boden said that there was no “yes or no” meaning in the letter.
“The letter says what the letter says”, he said, and that it had to be read in its totality to grasp its significance.
But Mr Robinson said it was “clear” that the only real concern was in joining up the governance arrangements. Any apparent issues between the college and NAFC could be cleared up “at the next stage”.
Mr Grant admitted that progress had not been “anywhere near satisfactory” and that it had “got off to a bad start”. He said that the process had been slowed by three organisations trying to protect their own best interests and that the merger would continue slowly unless they started to co-operate.
He agreed that the UHI was “getting a bit exasperated” and that there was a short window of opportunity as support from the UHI and Joint Funding Council would not be there forever.
Mr Ratter claimed that the NAFC had no appetite for the business as it had complete governance over its own affairs. He had learned as one-time chairman of Shetland College board how powerless the college was to make its own decisions.
Councillor Gary Cleaver said that when the process started, everyone had focused on the business case and no one had considered the major impediments of property and pensions and that “for a whole range of reasons” the merger was not doable.
“I think the councillors should accept that fact and look to our own and get the best result for our college and our learners.”
Councillor Vaila Wishart said that while she had “great respect” for the NAFC and its research programmes, she had been “increasingly worried” about the move over the last few months.
She said that the NAFC had been “dragging their feet” but every time there was a delay, it was “unfair” for Shetland College and its staff.
“When I saw the letter from the NAFC I realised that they would keep delaying and delaying and it would not make any difference to them.”
She added: “We need to get the college away from the dead hand of the council and change the governance so that the board has some teeth.”
• For more see The Shetland Times on Friday.