Scottish colleges are wasting tens of millions of pounds through inefficiency, public spending watchdogs have warned.
More staff cuts, larger class sizes and increased use of part-time lecturers have been suggested by the National Audit Office as a potential solution to the problem.
Although the sector has already cut unit costs by 23 per cent in the past five years, and 93 per cent of the sector's 43 colleges now face financial deficits, the NAO said that all colleges have room for improving their efficiency.
In a report published yesterday on Scottish further education, the NAO said that the sector could save a minimum of Pounds 13 million if all under-performing colleges reached average efficiency levels. The projected saving is equivalent to a 4 per cent increase in student activity at no additional cost.
The NAO is calling on the new Scottish Further Education Funding Council, which comes into being on July 1, to herald an era of cooperation in the sector. The NAO wants the SFEFC, with the support of the new Scottish Parliament, to develop a new framework for sharing benchmark information on efficiency across the sector.
But in a move bound to cause anger among college staff and trade unions, the NAO said that some colleges could benefit from adopting the controversial staffing policies of their more lean counterparts. In a case study in the report, the NAO celebrates a college which has achieved high growth and low unit costs by cutting staff costs.
"The college attributes their success to the implementation of a number of coherent and linked strategies to reduce staff costs and improve the productivity and utilisation of their key resource - teaching staff," the report said.
These strategies include: saving Pounds 350,000 a year by contracting out temporary staffing requirements to a teaching staff agency; changing teaching contracts and increasing working hours from 32.5 to 35 hours a week; "re-profiling" college staff to increase the proportion of support staff from 36 per cent to 42 per cent of total staff from 1994 to 1998.
The report acknowledged: "Not all colleges view all of the practices within each of the areas above as either acceptable or successful."
It noted that one college in its study refused to use lecturers' agencies, "reflecting concerns about risks to quality and standards through the use of casual staff, and the potentially adverse impacts on the commitment of existing part-time staff".
The NAO recommended that such strategies be implemented with care.