Lecturers concerned council avoiding public scrutiny over college merger
College lecturers have expressed concern that the council is making decisions “behind closed doors” during the coronavirus pandemic.
The lecturers’ union EIS-FELA said the SIC was “pushing ahead with this next stage of its decision-making on the merger of Shetland College, despite the current Covid-19 pandemic”.
EIS-FELA members from Shetland College, Train Shetland and the NAFC Marine Centre, which are due to be merged, have been protesting details of the merger process and the business model to be adopted by the proposed college.
The council has said it continues to meet with the union regarding the merger.
A virtual full council meeting is going ahead on Wednesday but will not be open to the public, as permitted by public health legislation, due to the coronavirus emergency – journalists are permitted to attend the meeting remotely, and the public agenda is available to view on the council’s website.
The college merger ministerial business case is set to be discussed openly but details of transitional funding for the merger include exempt information, meaning journalists will be excluded from that.
The further education union said the council was due to take the upcoming decision “without public scrutiny”.
However, the council responded to say transitional funding was “quite properly” being discussed privately due to it containing “financial information relating to non-SIC bodies”.
The final decision on the legal status of the proposed college rests with Scottish education minister John Swinney, according to the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, following concerns raised by the Educational Institute Scotland (EIS). The meeting on Wednesday is effectively the final decision made on the council’s behalf on “whether to merger or not”.
The union said it was “extremely concerned about the lack of consultation and due diligence to ensure that public money is being well spent at a time of grave financial uncertainty”.
The EIS-FELA Shetland branch were previously advised they could attend the meeting as observers, with the union adding that it was “unclear why this decision has been overturned”.
Shetland College staff are reported to have ongoing concerns over the security of employment and terms and conditions.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Our college members in Shetland, and those working in further education institutes across Scotland, have made it clear that we are opposed to privatisation because it is likely to negatively impact staff terms and conditions and students’ quality of education.
“EIS-FELA has submitted thousands of petition signatures in opposition to this privatisation.
“Now the council is seeking to use the Covid-19 pandemic to disregard the principles of democracy and due process. This is completely unacceptable.
“The council meeting is going ahead virtually this week, despite the fact that there are no new timescales for the merger or date for vesting of the new college, owing to the pandemic. This begs the question: why is the council insistent on going ahead with making a decision this week?”
The union said it understood the financial pressures the council faced but added that pushing ahead with the next stage of decision-making despite the pandemic was “highly questionable”.
EIS members are expected to “take action” on social media on Tuesday, using #KeepShetlandCollegePublic to highlight their concerns ahead of the council meeting the day after.
In a statement, the SIC said: “On Wednesday, Shetland Islands Councillors will meet virtually. Public access to that meeting is restricted due to Coronavirus regulations; however, the media will be attending remotely.
“There are two reports relating to the College Merger – on the Ministerial Business Case, which will be held in public, and on Transitional Funding, which is quite properly being held in private, as it discusses financial information relating to non-SIC bodies.
“We continue to meet regularly with the relevant unions on this matter.”