MSP briefing: College regionalisation

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) welcomes the opportunity to brief MSPs ahead of the Education, Children and Young People (ECYP) Committee’s debate on ‘College Regionalisation.’ 

As the RSE’s Education Committee noted in its response to the ECYP Committee’s inquiry, the RSE recognises that regionalisation marked a significant development in Scotland’s design and delivery of further education. However, its impacts are difficult to untangle from the host of other operational and structural changes enacted in the sector simultaneously.

Ultimately, the RSE believes that the benefits of regionalisation have not been fully realised due to the limitations introduced by these related developments. That said, it remains a promising model for how colleges can wield regional and national influence whilst retaining a local identity, subject to the right conditions.

A person posing for the camera
Dr Janet Brown FRSE

Regionalisation of Scotland’s colleges marked a significant development in the design and delivery of a key component of tertiary education in Scotland.

The benefits of regionalisation have not been fully realised due to the limitations resulting from the host of other operational and structural changes that were enacted on the sector simultaneously.

Whilst there are undoubted benefits from undertaking well thought out and fully funded structural reform, these must be balanced against the opportunity costs that can occur in terms of diversion of resources and the ability to deliver critical activities.

This is particularly the case when the colleges face significant funding challenges at a time when their contribution is vital to achieving Scotland’s climate commitments.

Dr Janet Brown FRSE, RSE Education Committee Convener

KEY POINTS FOR DISCUSSION – debate on College Regionalisation 

It is difficult to untangle the impacts of regionalisation from those of the myriad other changes that were taking place – and continue to take place – concurrently within the sector. These changes include: the reclassification of colleges from non-profit institutions serving households to general government public sector bodies by the Office for National Statistics; the introduction of national bargaining; changing funding models; decreases in funding; and the wide-ranging impacts of Brexit and Covid-19.


As colleges pursue greater collaboration with universities, industry, and other institutions, it will be important for them to retain an identity distinct from other delivery partners, recognising that – while they are an important element of the tertiary system as a whole – they provide a valuable alternative to university pathways which some students may find more suitable. Balancing collaboration with an appropriate degree of individualisation, and with clear identification of objectives, will be critical to colleges contributing to a coherent and flexible system without becoming subsumed by it.

In the years ahead, colleges must be afforded greater flexibility in order to be responsive to differing – and indeed shifting – economic and societal needs and priorities. Colleges can perform different functions depending on their regional context, yet the existing policy and funding landscape can constrain their ability to diverge according to local needs. In addition, Scotland should seek to divest political interests from sectoral aims and focus on delivering impactful policy founded on meaningful co-production; whilst the governance structure that supports regionalisation could be further rationalised to streamline delivery and enhance self-determination.

While the pandemic recovery agenda will likely continue to dominate government priorities for the next several years, it is important that the sector does not lose sight of more enduring challenges, namely the climate emergency. Colleges will have a pivotal role to play in reskilling & multiskilling workers in support of a just transition as Scotland works towards its decarbonisation targets.

In terms of teaching and delivery, lessons learned by both individual regions and the system as a whole in response to Covid-19 should be retained and mainstreamed. There is opportunity to incorporate new teaching and assessment methods developed during the pandemic into permanent practice, in order to enhance delivery and outcomes and provide for a more flexible learning environment.


The RSE endorses the findings of the Cumberford-Little report, which outlines a set of priorities for Ministers and the college sector based on extensive stakeholder engagement. including: endorsing a compelling narrative setting out the purpose of a 21st-century college education; making business growth a top priority; and a series of recommendations aimed at the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) which encourage sector agility and responsiveness, coherency between colleges and universities, and preserving the diversity of the sector, amongst others.


If you have any further questions, please contact Fraser Gillan: [email protected].