Scotland’s countryside is an important contributor to the nation’s economy: cereals, potatoes, soft fruit, beef and dairy, sheep and forestry. These industries are vulnerable however – to fluctuating markets and weather certainly but what else?
Where do young people go to train for careers in rural occupations? The time was when there were facilities fairly close to home for our rural youngsters to get the basics while still working on family farms, certainly at weekends. Unfortunately these facilities are contracting and the danger is some may disappear altogether. Whole experimental farms have been sold off for house building or golf courses at the same time our rural college offers its majority of courses not in any of Scotland’s mainstays of farming but in Scotland’s second biggest city, Edinburgh.
The food produced in Scotland is renowned for its high quality and you might think it essential to reinforce this state-of-affairs through the provision of educational courses provided in just those areas where demand is greatest to learn rural skills and where back-up services are most needed. Edinburgh does not spring to mind for either of those.
The body providing training for a life in farming and forestry is the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) which a couple of years ago morphed out of the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) – an umbrella organisation for agri colleges across the country that had been established in the early years of the 20th century and were instrumental in the expansion of Scotland’s agricultural sector, based largely on pasture-reared stock.
“Sheep and beef production from extensive systems is broadly speaking, environmentally friendly. Animal welfare is perceived to be of a high order and, coupled with images of fresh air, open hills and clean water, Scottish meat is seen as a high quality product”.
House of Commons, Scottish Affairs Committee (1996).
But not all is perfect with the SRUC which returned a loss for the last financial year – blamed on a number of one-off and merger costs, but contrived a 43% increase in pay for the principal and chief executive to £309,000, from £216,000 previously. The SRUC Chairman is Lord Jamie Lindsay.
Hard times have not dampened the ambitions of the SRUC Board to achieve university status for its courses and it is undergoing discussions with Edinburgh University with that in mind because the SRUC is seeking,
“a new alignment with the potential to create an influential force in the agricultural world”.
And you and I thought good farming practice came down to a farmer being able to tell one end of a cow from another.
The SRUC operates six campuses across Scotland – at Aberdeen, Ayr, Barony, Edinburgh, Elmwood and Oatridge plus a network of veterinary, advisory, consultancy offices and research farms, essential to the farming community. The provision is similar to what has long existed if somewhat curtailed in extent after years of pruning staff, courses, property and land – in a bid to balance the books.
The model sought was smaller and sleeker and not so messily rural which is why the SRUC ended up as an urban institution, in one of the most expensive parts of Scotland.
Scotland’s richest farming areas are found in Orkney, the northeast and southwest and rural communities in these parts were desperate to retain a close working relationship with the then SAC. What emerged was an extended internecine war over which campus would be the best headquarters and which would suffer greatest losses of land, buildings and staff in the drive for economic viability.
Back in 2003 the Scottish Parliament’s Environment and Rural Development Committee issued this statement:
‘The current review of SAC did not itself consider the wider economic impact of SAC’s decisions. That was not an oversight. SAC’s Directors are responsible for the viability of the organisation. Though SAC wishes to be as helpful to local economies as it can be, that must not compromise its own survival.’
This is curious. The SAC’s survival was surely inextricably linked to the success of its decisions and the attractiveness of a rural college is surely its usefulness to the people most likely to use it. Given the particular and differing strengths of agricultural industries across Scotland their needs will vary by area. The notion that the SAC had to survive at all costs is a peculiar one. If the SAC was not effective in responding to the needs of its industry then preserving it as an entity was never going to create a facility relevant to the future of rural life and industry.
Deloitte and Touche (D&T) were employed to draw up a report to establish the situation within the SAC and its future options.
D &T’s report threw up a list of justifications for situating Scotland’s rural college in its capital city as the best way forward rather than at one of its two main purpose-built campuses – Auchincruive, Ayrshire and Craibstone, Aberdeen.
At the time student numbers were:
Edinburgh – 146 students
Craibstone – 200 students
Auchincruive – 360 students
Brian Pack, former CE of the giant Aberdeen and Northern Marts (ANM) group argued for the retention of the Scottish system of integrating practice at the SAC – preserving a link between research and development and consultancy with teaching while the SAC sought to separate them out. He was a strong advocate for making Craibstone the lead campus for the SAC Scotland operation, not least because of its proximity to the rich farming lands of Aberdeenshire.
Edinburgh, it was pointed out had no student accommodation on site and it would be difficult and expensive for students to find their own in the city. Craibstone was well-served with student accommodation, and its many students were able to combine studies with practical work at home, not possible for the majority from Edinburgh. Craibstone was also popular with students from the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney because of the good transport links with these areas. Craibstone included several experimental farms distributed over a wide area as well as woodland in a prime location at the edge of Aberdeen.
Another view in support of Craibstone is quoted -
‘It is recognised that there are other further education establishments closer to
home e.g. Edinburgh SAC is closer to the Borders than Craibstone is,
however the students still chose to come to Aberdeen. This shows a better
quality experience gained at a rural campus, especially for rural-based
courses. You only need to look at the successful recruitment of students at
other land-based colleges in rural locations to see this is true e.g. Harper
Adams, Writtle, Royal Agricultural College.’
But the D&T report worked hard at persuading the case for establishing the rural college’s base in Edinburgh where it said there was -
‘better access to physical resources in libraries, bookshops and other support services were seen as great advantages’
…which annoyed supporters of Craibstone -
‘This has obviously been produced by people with little knowledge of how the campus at Craibstone Operates: all students are matriculated to Aberdeen University, so have a free access to the University library, sports and other student facilities which are only 5 miles away from Craibstone and on a main bus route. It is therefore obvious that the weightings are unrealistic and inaccurate.’
Was the D&T report projecting the outcome desired by the SAC Board? That was certainly the suspicion among many in the industry whereas it appeared the then Scottish Executive supported retaining the College as a cross-country facility. Given that the SAC was receiving 41% of its funding from Holyrood you might think that view should have carried weight.
However Labour’s Rhona Brankin MSP appears to have supported the move to Edinburgh
It is not obvious how setting up in an urban environment was going to stop the loss of students and cash. Quite the reverse.
At Ayr it was felt that decisions were being taken without consultation with ‘local stakeholders’ and that the detrimental impact on the Ayrshire economy was not given consideration. Auchincruive offered consultancy services, vet labs along with an experimental farm and brought in nearly 29% the SAC’s education income.
Both Craibstone and Auchincruive provide courses from SVQs to BSc Hons level although more limited in university degree options than at Edinburgh.
Arguing in favour of Edinburgh was Dr Mark Hocart from the SAC there -
‘Education is about personal growth and development as well as academic success. SAC has a responsibility to provide the most appropriate environment for students to develop as fully rounded personalities. For many students the contacts and network of friends made at college or university will be important to them throughout their subsequent careers so it is important that that experience is as rich and diverse as possible. A National Centre of Excellence The proposed ‘Hub and Spoke’ model is the right way to move.’
So there you have it – learning skills is so old fashioned – it’s all about personal growth blah, blah, blah.
As for ‘Hub and Spoke’ – this is Edinburgh the hub and Auchincruive and Craibstone etc are the spokes. Which is fine except shouldn’t it have been the other way around with the concentration on rural rather than urban?
He went on
‘Bringing the full-time education provision together for the first time will allow SAC
to build an integrated range of course programmes, maximising opportunities for
sharing of teaching modules across programmes. The hub focus will improve the
diversity of course programmes students can pursue while still delivering
education in a financially viable manner. The ‘Spokes’ are effectively satellite
teaching centres, and outreach centres based principally on SAC’s advisory
offices that will allow a greater participation in education for students in rural
Scotland. Developments in e-learning, distance learning and ‘electronic
classrooms’, will enable SAC to deliver education and training over a wider
geographical range than is currently the case. The hub and spoke model will
give SAC a truly national reach for education provision.’
You might be forgiven for wondering how this matches up with effective training for our young farmers … e-learning? really?
Here’s a novel approach – do away with the need for e-learning and get students out into the field (literally). Or is that too radical?
‘King’s Buildings (Edinburgh) have strong and productive research links with the Moredun Research Institute, the Roslin Institute, the SABRIs, SASA and BioSS. This
amalgamation of research activities adds significantly to the critical mass for
effective world class research. ‘
Forgive me but isn’t this exactly the setup for e-communication rather than practical skills? And while Edinburgh campus was close to those research bodies Craibstone was equally close to the Macaulay Institute(John Hutton), the Rowett and the University of Aberdeen and Robert Gordon’s University.
‘SAC Edinburgh has a local tradition of agriculture and land-based education and
has been supporting land-based industries for as long as any other centre. At
present we provide 25% of the courses at SAC, less than our Auchincruive
campus, however this is to change in the future.’
And we know why.
Dr Graham E Dalton FIAgrM commenting on the D&T report -
‘This report is a classic consultancy report where the wrong question has been asked. The financial accounts show that SAC is not working. Why? High overheads for facilities are only one possible reason for this situation.’
He questioned whether staffing levels were right rather than D&T’s concentration on WHERE to put staff. And he questioned D&T’s favouring centralising the SAC in Edinburgh – arguing this WOULD have a negative impact on revenue so that the report’s assumption of their best option was unlikely to succeed.
He suggested the report was coming on the problem from the wrong end. Instead of concentrating on the organisation of the institution it should have looked to the needs of ‘its customers’.
Brian Pack pointed out the danger of being fixated by costs rather than value. A yes to that.
Think about it if you were setting up an agricultural – let’s widen it – rural college would you opt to put it in the middle of a city?
If there’s one thing people need it is food. There is surely great scope for further development of Scotland’s rural industries so how is it the institution on which so much of this future depends is in dire straits? Could it be the fault lies with the Board and decisions taken by it?
Isobel Gibson thought so. Back at the same Holyrood enquiry in 2003 she was critical of the management of the SAC and D&T report for failing to understand the needs of students and their ‘potential as generators of income.’
Auchincruive and Craibstone were once major centres for learning for young men and women, many of them from farming backgrounds, in search of rural skills. Both colleges provided their localities with professional advice from experts in crop management, pest control, veterinary advice and so on as well as undertaking research programmes. But their farmland, woodland and many buildings were sold and with them so vital provision and links with the land.
There’s an echo of the consequence of slicing away at our agricultural base in an academic paper on ‘Agriculture’s contribution to Scottish society, economy and environment’ (2001) from the University of Aberdeen which found that when Scots were asked to visualise ‘rural’ they conjured up images of a highland idyll – of mountainscapes – whereas in other parts of Europe the same question brought descriptions of things agricultural.
While I might not be able to lay the blame for this diminution in awareness of our agricultural sector at the door of the SAC or SRUC or whatever they are likely to call themselves next week there were signals back in 2003 that not all was right.
“The Scottish Agricultural College is a practical example of what happens when Colleges merge without a well thought out strategy. The Committee should regard it as a template of all that can go wrong. There has been a preponderance of “bankers and business types” on the SAC Board. Practical farmers were ignored.”
Both Craibstone and Auchincruive suffered draconian cuts in the SAC/SRUC drive to stop leaking cash. Slash and sell – the SAC saw a future in selling off farms and land and anything that stood still. Indeed could that be the reason Edinburgh won out as the SAC HQ – that campus had nothing to flog off whereas Craibstone was resource-rich and by selling its assets and those at Auchincruive the SAC was able to use the capital raised to reduce its losses. Had the decision been taken to abandon Edinburgh in favour of, say, Craibstone, there would be no such financial gain as the SAC there had virtually nothing to sell.
However it was come to the decision was taken in favour of Edinburgh and the SAC now existed as a private company with charitable status. Its Principal and Chief Executives were appointees – by fellow Board members. There was also a tie in with the Anglian Water Group (AWG) hired to carry out some of the campus pruning operations. The SAC sat back and waited for the cash to drop into their laps. In 2007 merchant baker Lord Lindsay was appointed its chairman. Integration was the way forward.
Then in 2013 this emerged:
“If ever a monument to “joined up” academic planning stupidity was to be erected, the Craigie Campus, Ayr should be its home. No one but an academic would train nurses and farmers at the same facility. Squeaky clean meets E Coli heaven. This week (7 Janueary 2013) the annual health warning to pregnant women was issued by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Harry Burns. This warns women not to come into contact with lambing ewes or even the clothes of anyone doing the work for fear of risks to their own unborn child.”
While the SAC was selling off property with one hand it was swallowing up various rural colleges, to mix metaphors, to mixed fortunes. Integration at any cost. Doesn’t responsibility for this absurdity rest with the Board?
Critics of the way the SAC was run and now presumably the SRUC have made no impact on it.
‘What lessons can be learned from the conduct of the SAC. The SAC Board has long been considered a self perpetuating oligarchy.’
“On 19 January 2011, the then SAC chief executive told all 30 South Ayrshire Council Planning Committee members at a public planning meeting they were to disregard the testimony of the person nominated by the Ayrshire National Farmers Union to speak in opposition to SAC plans to ruin Auchicruive.
On the day, the Ayrshire NFU farmer representative was not allowed to rebut the unwarranted attack on his integrity. The SAC Chairman later did admit the SAC Chief Executive was in error and apologised to the Ayrshire farmer in the press.”
There is no disguising discontent among the farming community over the role played by the organisation.
‘Finally the Committee should invite the NFU Scotland President Nigel Miller to tell why it was necessary for him to write to the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead in August 2011. “It is a sad fact that our Scottish system, which was once world leading, is probably no longer the best.” He also calls for a need to examine how we make the most of our existing sites.’
The SRUC annual report 2013 shows the SRUC still selling off land at Aberdeen and Ayr to improve its net balance. The jargon seems to indicate we haven’t seen the end of mergers – or ‘merger synergies’ as stated in the report.
The move to Edinburgh doesn’t appear to have been the answer to the SRUC’s problems. It appears caught in a cycle of cost cutting – to what end?
Who and what are losing out to this crazy setup and how damaging is it for the future of Scotland’s rural industries?
In its drive to attain university status has the SRUC lost sight of its basic function?
Why was it able to become a private company answerable to none over its selling off once publicly owned resources?
It bothers me that its Board members, apart from staff and student representatives are appointed.
That it is private but is still supported by public funds – currently the SRUC gets
financial assistance from the Scottish Funding Council.
That it is a registered charity therefore does not pay corporation tax.
The SAC, and now the SRUC, was set up as a limited liability company under guarantee (without share capital). Many such conversions from public colleges to private have gone down a similar route but with Boards of Governors plus a CEO and Principal. The SAC chose to form a standard limited company with a Board of Directors.
A board of governors allows greater opportunity for scrutiny of senior management. And it is cheaper than the SAC/SRUC setup as governors are paid a small stipend and expenses. An executive Board gets salary plus benefits – what they are is anyone’s guess. Board executive liability in the event of the SRUC becoming insolvent stands at £1 each.
As there are no shareholders the Board can remunerate themselves to any amount they wish. There are stakeholders of course, who can attend the annual AGM and grand dinner, but they don’t get any vote on the issue of executive remuneration.
There we have it. A rural skills college run from a city as a private business dependent on public money, paying no corporation tax and flogging off what were publicly owned assets.
Nothing illegal about it but for the life of me I can’t see this model as being in the best interests of Scotland’s rural industries.
ENVIRONMENT AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE
2ND Meeting, 2003 (Session 2)
Wednesday 25 June 2003
[PDF]SRUC Board and Committe Structure and Remits – working …
[PDF]Agriculture’s contribution to Scottish society, economy and …
Herald Scotland : Few signs of peace as SAC’s battle for survival reaches the Executive Thursday 26 June 2003