Scottish Further Education

Patrick ODonnell, Mark Murphy

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Scottish Further Education (FE) can never be accused of being unyielding and monolithic. Over the last two decades, Further Education (FE) colleges in Scotland have continually been responding and re-aligning themselves (in both similar and idiosyncratic ways) to the emerging socio-economic policies, challenges and markets and through this process they have become complex and multi-layered institutions. They have evolved to become key agents in developing the skills base of the economy by providing vocational programmes for new entrants to the labour market and by integrating with leading employee programmes, both of which help to modernise the skills of the workforce. The sector has long been recognised as central and effective agents in the delivery of lifelong learning and social inclusion objectives. It has been proactive in realising the policy aspirations outlined in Curriculum for Excellence (although admittedly at the time of writing there is a lacuna in research on the scope and nature of the relationship between FE and CfE). However, in recent years the nature and character of Scottish FE has been challenged. In July 2012, the Scottish Government Report Reinvigorating College Governance: the Scottish Response to The Report of the Review of Further Education Governance in Scotland (Scottish Government, 2012a) outlined a radical new structure for the Scottish Further Education (FE) sector and, within a year of this announcement, its overall impact had been unparalleled, creating seismic changes. The transformations can be viewed as a response to a range of separate and intersecting factors, including global, socio-economic and political pressures and agendas. However, the core message from Government rhetoric is that the sector should be fully comprehensible in terms of role, identity and accountability. The newly emerging paradigm for FE governance – a reform process referred to as ‘regionalisation’ - has clearly overturned previous structural and governance arrangements, reconfiguring the Scottish FE landscape into 13 regions, each with its own FE provider. The restructuring has led to the number of incorporated colleges decreasing from 37 in 2012 to 20 in 2014-15 (Audit General Report: Scotland’s Colleges, 2016). The overall transition from operating as separate autonomous FE institutions to operating within a larger regional collective is now complete; however, the performativity scripts and accountability measures are still evolving and embedding within the newly structured sector.

The policy rhetoric advancing the need for reform offers a clear sense of a radical ‘modernising project’ for the Scottish FE landscape. The newly emergent policy agenda is linked to a drive to improve accountability, efficiency and effectiveness with the need to reduce duplication (rationalization) being singled out. Considering the history of Scottish FE, the drive for better efficiency and effectiveness is not new, but what is innovative is how the prescribed policy solution breaks with traditional privileges through the adoption of regional architecture aimed to give far more centralised control. Under the regionalisation paradigm, the Scottish FE sector is better placed, so the argument follows, to develop highly skilled and flexible human capital as well as enhancing social capital. This modernising project for the Scottish FE sector can be seen as part of a larger transnational scheme involving Scotland’s sense of national identity and place in the European context. The reforms are underpinned by the argument that a sustainable economic future for Scotland can only be achieved through collective wisdom, collective effort and shared vision on the challenges ahead, and the role FE will play in ensuring Scotland’s social and economic successes. The need to foster flexible and well-educated citizens to cope with rapid economic and technological development and change has been stressed repeatedly within the policy rhetoric.

This chapter offers an exploration of the recent developments unfolding within the Scottish FE sector; placing them against a backdrop of previous governance developments talking hold from the early 1990s. It considers the main driving forces and legitimising discourses behind the current restructuring of the Scottish FE sector and argues that the reform process commonly referred to as ‘regionalisation’ will help create a unifying narrative for the sector through new and tighter levels of centralised control. It is argued that by recognizing and unpacking the political drivers and discourses we come to see how they reconstruct and delineate FE. However, although the regional architecture is now clearly visible, the unfolding cultural shifts and adjustments taking place mean that any contemporary readings and analysis of the Scottish FE reforms can only be a partial account. As such the following is simply a snapshot of a newly evolving sector enacting new policy reforms and imperatives.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationScottish Education
EditorsTom Bryce
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
Chapterchapter 6
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781474437868, 9781474437851
ISBN (Print)9781474437844
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018


  • 23ref2021


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