Incorporation of Scotland’s Colleges: A Scottish example of local automomy and accountability in action

John McCann, Director of Next Practice at Scotland’s Colleges, has kindly provided me with a piece on the development of Scotland’s Colleges from their Incorporation in 1993 when they gained their own autonomy. 


I will be returning to this on numerous occasions over the next few months.




Any reasonable commentator on the lifelong learning landscape in Scotland would conclude that colleges are in a good place. The most recent (2009) HMIe Report on Improving Scottish Education concluded that there were no systemic weaknesses in the sector and anticipated colleges being at the forefront of contemporary education challenges. Further, and while these things are always transitory, there has been significant political goodwill recently reflecting college reputation for responsiveness to changing contexts.

 There are a number of factors which have contributed to this position – strategic leadership, flexible curriculum arrangements, staff development, funding drivers, …. However, the significant structural element has been the ability of colleges, as autonomous institutions, to act with agility in addressing changing circumstances.

 Formally, colleges became incorporated institutions in 1993 when they moved from local authority control and the modern college movement begun. It required legislative action with momentum generated by a combination of political will, a particular vision for public services and educational rationale. While the legislative procedure was accelerated, it was seen as the next stage in a process.

 Political Context

 The political context throughout the 80s was one of significant reform of public services with encouragement of private sector thinking to public service provision. Some public services were ‘privatised’ while all were required to be customer focused and to reflect this in the quality of service delivered and the accountability mechanisms developed. Competition became the driver for efficiency gains and quality improvement. The prevailing thinking was that of a shift away from central control towards provision of local services to provide local solutions which met local needs and had local accountability.

 A further political driver was that of the unpopular ‘poll tax’. This was introduced in line with the prevailing political philosophy and never attained acceptance as a fair way of contributing to the costs of public services. One tactic was to take services out of local authority responsibility and, in so doing, remove an expenditure burden providing an opportunity to reduce local taxation. The political judgement was of a more favourable perspective on poll tax.

 Finally, there was significant activity in reforming the university sector. As part of the ‘liberating’ ethos, the binary divide was removed with a large number of institutions becoming universities. The regulating body for degree awards was abolished and the country turned away from an elitist approach to higher education to one of widening access in line with other developing countries. Access to education and, from that, provision of a highly qualified workforce, was seen to be critical to success in the new context of knowledge economies and emerging demands of globalisation.

 The political conditions were right for incorporation of colleges; a number of boxes were ticked and a number of helpful steps had been undertaken on the road. For example, college councils had been formed and, in some authorities, there was significant delegation to individual institutions – schools as well as colleges.

 Educational Context

During the 80s, educational systems had to respond to new demands created by major shifts in the economy. Scotland’s traditional economic base – manufacturing, engineering, shipbuilding, mining – collapsed to be replaced by a service economy. The extent of this shift was such that it has attracted the descriptor ‘revolution’ by some contemporary commentators. A second set of demands was generated by the ubiquity of technology with the ready availability of cheaper, more powerful processors. Business processes were being fundamentally restructured.

In contrast to the pace of change in society, educational systems were ‘measured’ in their response to changes. Inevitably, change was demanded to make the system better suited to modern demands. In schools, the age of the initiative was born. In colleges there was two major changes.

The first was reform of the ‘non-advanced’ qualification structure. It took many forms and subject to perspectives of a multitude of employer bodies. ‘Action Plan’ was designed to bring coherence to the curriculum and to change the delivery paradigm to ‘student centredness’. The National Certificate ‘module’ was born which described provision in terms of the outcomes which learners were to achieve and the standards for certification. The availability of the module as the unit of learning (nominally 40 hours) opened up new possibilities for curriculum design and delivery.

The second change was the devolution to colleges for quality assurance including assessment. The qualifications body owned the qualifications specification and so national standards were preserved. Colleges, who had developed systems and processes to assure assessment methods met required standards, assessed and, subject to verification, awarded credit. These delegated powers opened up new possibilities for flexible delivery.

The change management processes related to Action Plan might be described as power-coercive. Courageous decisions were made that the existing curriculum would cease to exist at a particular point in time to be replaced by new modules. The pace was fierce – part of the change management process – with the whole non-advanced curriculum replaced in a couple of years.

These changes were also introduced for HN ‘units’. By the end of 80s, colleges had a unit-based, flexible curriculum with significant delegated powers. A significant degree of ownership of the curriculum had passed to colleges with the expectation that provision would meet local needs. Colleges were empowered to become the type of responsive institution to meet these new demands.

There was also in the sector, a cohort of managers who had been through significant change and who had led much of it. There was capacity (and appetite) within the sector for greater accountability, responsibility and autonomy. In other countries, particularly the American Community Colleges, and elsewhere in the UK colleges had become or were becoming autonomous. In the UK, central institutions had demonstrated the value of autonomous operation with appropriate mechanisms for accountability. Incorporation was an obvious next step.

 Enabling Incorporation

With the political will in place, the educational rationale sound (and proven in other contexts), processes were put in place for colleges to be removed from local authority control and become autonomous institutions. The break was to be clean and comprehensive – there were no qualifications to autonomy.

Colleges became accountable to their own Boards of Management. Board responsibilities included all matters related to the functioning of the organisation – strategic direction, finance, human resources, property, quality, curriculum,….. Core funding was to be provided from central government based on a transparent formula related to student activity with these arrangements phased in to allow colleges to adjust. (initial allocation was based on historic allocation from local authorities). Central control on curriculum provision (eg approval of HN provision) was removed.

Boards were to be made up of 16 members. Some were prescribed – Principal, Academic Staff member, Support Staff member and student. Not less than half the Board were to be experienced in “industrial, commercial or employment matters or the practice of any profession”. Limitations were placed on local authority influence; explicitly neither an elected nor an appointed member of a local authority could chair the board.

Support available to colleges was considerable and critical with SFEU (as was) playing a very significant role and well supported by government. Support took the form of understanding new responsibilities and new appointments in colleges provided the necessary specialist expertise – the balance of academic/support staff was to change dramatically. Specific support was made available to colleges where necessary and steps were taken to ensure there were no college failures.

An attempt was made to preserve national bargaining. However, given that staff costs represented much of a colleges’ expenditure, national mechanisms broke down to be replaced with local bargaining. There are occasional calls for its restoration.

As might be imagined, colleges exploited incorporation differently. All grew in terms of student numbers – some much faster than others. Each developed their own corporate identity and there were significant competitive pressures around. The quality of management and leadership improved in response to new opportunities and responsibilities and this has been a key aspect of current success.

National policy demands were addressed through funding mechanisms (grant-in-aid conditions, specific funding allocation, strategic development funds) and quality regimes. There is a high degree of awareness within the college community that addressing policy is not only a requirement of funding but also required in order to retain autonomy.

For all colleges, a high level of innovation became characteristic of their work. This was necessary given the competitive forces which around and the challenging issues being addressed. There were also internal forces driving innovation as staff became empowered to take forward their own ideas with minimum reference to external bureaucracies.


No-one doubts that the process was a successful reform of an increasingly important public service – it was the right thing to do. Apart for some calls for a return to national bargaining, there is no serious attempt to return to pre-Incorporation times. There remain tensions between national policy and local autonomy; however, these are to be anticipated. Generally, we have found a way by which national policy demands can be quickly implemented with local provision shaped to meet local demands.

The conditions (political, public service, educational) which led to incorporation of colleges remain and, indeed, have become more imperative. These are

  1. The pace of change is such to require responsive, agile institutions continually adapting to new circumstances;
  2. Innovation is best achieved within a dynamic, challenging environment where individuals are unencumbered by unnecessary, distant bureaucracy;
  3. Local solutions work best;
  4. National interests can be served well through enlightened funding and quality levers.




1 thought on “Incorporation of Scotland’s Colleges: A Scottish example of local automomy and accountability in action

  1. Was not without its challenges the model is still not perfect – but it improved flexibility of delivery, local accountability to a degree and allowed Colleges to manage their learners experience in ways that were unthinkable under local authority funding.

    I grew with and through all these changes and SQA contributed a lot to providing the scaffolding that built the system and still does. The innovations in curriculum design and assessment were national supported locally.
    Strong quality and self evaluation ethos in Colleges too.
    In College land if we need a new course – it can be built – locally , by a consortium of interested Colleges or nationally – work can take under 18 months and Colleges are used to taking good ideas from College up the road from other end of country or as highlighted from other bits of the Globe.

    Scalability thing too though even smallest Colleges are larger than biggest schools

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