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Working together

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This resource is designed to help colleges and universities to explore different forms of partnership and to support them in developing new ways of working together.

It provides advice and commentary on opportunities for collaboration, strategic alliances, mergers, and federation and offers examples of best practice through a selection of case studies involving colleges and universities in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Case studies provided describe various ways in which institutions and their partners can collaborate and provide some insight into the range of formal and informal activity undertaken across the sector to build relationships and foster new partnerships, strengthening opportunities and outcomes for institutions, staff, and students.

The benefits

There are many benefits of working together. Collaboration ensures better alignment and coherence of provision, removes unnecessary duplication and competition, and supports the delivery of regional education, employment and skills needs.

Bringing together knowledge and resources stimulates innovation and enables partners develop solutions that are focussed, coordinated and efficient

This then allows colleges and universities to offer a wider range of learning options, supporting a more diverse range of learners towards successful outcomes and positive destinations.

New ways of

Working in partnership

Key Documents

The Review of Tertiary Education and Research, agreed by Ministers in October 2021, recommended building capacity and developing a more systematic approach to collective planning for learning, skills and investment. It also called for deeper and more transformational collaborations and partnerships. This resource is part of SFC’s work to support colleges’ and universities’ response to this recommendation. It is also one of the ways in which SFC is striving to support the future sustainability in a challenging fiscal environment.

Our College Infrastructure Strategy: The Approach to Delivering Scotland’s College Infrastructure Investment Plan (Nov 2022)  highlights the importance of collaboration in securing our collective ambitions for the future college infrastructure. The report recommends the sector should prioritise developing collaboration through partnerships with other education providers or local stakeholders, including local businesses.

The Scottish Government College Regionalisation Inquiry (March 2023) recognises the move towards a more interconnected tertiary education sector. The report highlights the benefits of better collaboration for articulation and intra-connected learning pathways, as well as increased credibility for colleges.

Going Further and Higher, a report by the UK-wide Independent Commission on the College of the Future (Feb 2022) called for greater collaboration between colleges and universities. It noted the recommendations of SFC’s Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability and its ambitions for a path toward an integrated and collaborative tertiary system.

Setting out

A partnership approach is synonymous with the Scottish sector where we already have well-developed practices to support it, such as the enhancement themes, national networks and committees, and a culture of sharing best practice. Partnership initiatives might include digital innovation and developing shared capabilities in research, knowledge exchange and workforce development. They may also include a shared ability to generate, in collaboration with employers, a pipeline of skilled students and graduates for Scotland’s future economy and public sector.  There are several ways to work in partnership and it is important to consider all options and the different benefits they bring.

Questions to ask yourself 

  1. What does partnership mean to you, to your institution, to staff and to students?
  2. What does it look like in practice? How is a partnership approach championed across the institution?
  3. How are staff and students engaged? What capacity or role do they have in co-development of initiatives, policy, and strategy?
  4. In what ways do you already work in partnership with others? How can these relationships mature?
  5. Are there emerging areas of activity that you can engage with?
  6. How can you work in partnership with the local community and other stakeholders (such as business/industry) to respond to local need?
  7. How do you create the right conditions for partnership? What support is needed?

A good first step is to create time with prospective partners to identify opportunities for collaboration, reflect on priority areas and carry out research to further explore opportunities.

Role of SFC

SFC wants to support institutions when exploring options and recommends that institutions approach us early and informally in the first instance to discuss collaboration, federation or merger processes and timescales. More detail around our expected role is explored under each section.

SFC can provide general guidance on federation requirements, models for merger, developing a proposal, timescales, funding, governance issues, communication and consultation, and advice on any issues that could have an impact on the outcome of the proposed federation or merger. Institutions should get in touch with their Outcome Agreement Manager [PDF] in the first instance.

SFC can also support collaboration by facilitating and signposting opportunities between institutions.

During the early stages of developing a proposal for merger or federation the SFC will work directly with the senior managers and boards of management/governors of institutions to provide advice and support as they develop their proposal.

Later in the process, once the Boards/Governors have submitted their proposal to merge or federate to Ministers, SFC has a more formal role. At this point Ministers will ask SFC for its advice. Ministers will decide based on this advice and other consultations. SFC also has a formal role six months post Vesting Day and two years afterwards when Ministers request a post-merger evaluation.

Communication and transparency

Here are some ‘top tips’ from those who have explored different forms of partnership working:

  • Be sensitive and mindful in all communication to students and staff;
  • Try to have a mix of formal and informal opportunities for discussion;
  • Timely, appropriate communication – don’t get too ahead of yourself and don’t wait too long;
  • Be open, honest and transparent;
  • Bring people into the conversation; make it accessible for staff, students and stakeholders to engage, such as via open meetings, or a Q&A session;
  • Establish a regular collaboration/alliance/merger/federation newsletter or similar communication tool;
  • Have this as a standing agenda item on relevant committees;
  • Don’t be shy in delegating – this helps ensure that all senior staff across the institution have a role in communicating within their department/faculty;
  • Joint workshops – consider opportunities for staff (and students) to meet and work with potential future colleagues;
  • Can you host more informal, social gatherings, providing the opportunity to explore the cultures of the organisations and bring teams together.

Student engagement

Students’ associations have changed significantly in the decade since college regionalisation. Many are robust, sustainable and autonomous organisations that are embedded into student life and therefore it is vital that to consider their role when exploring potential federations or mergers, as both will have a direct impact on students’ associations and their activities.

Students’ associations have their own unique identity and priorities which will vary association to association; ensuring student officers are brought into discussions from the start is crucial to make sure that students feel any changes are being done with them and not to them. Many student associations already work very closely together and will have established relationships both locally and regionally with counterparts. As such, they can play a vital role in developing and championing partnership working, and in establishing connections and facilitating discussions.

Reaching out to organisations such as NUS Scotland and sparqs during early planning stages will provide insight into how to best support and engage students in these conversations in a meaningful and constructive way.


In 2020, the Scottish Funding Council undertook a review of how the sector could fulfil its mission to secure coherent provision in post-16 education. A recommendation of that review was that SFC, and the sector begin to explore a single tertiary approach to quality.

In November 2021, SFC launched the Tertiary Quality Project (TQP); the aim of the TQP was to create a more coherent and streamlined tertiary education system from the student perspective, and a system that delivers the best learning experience for students.

In the two plus years since the establishment of the TQP, SFC has worked closely with institutions and agencies across the sector to deliver the alignment to quality that was sought. Five workstreams with staff from across the sector were established, all delivering different parts of the new approach, including a new self-evaluation process, as well as a new external review method that all colleges and universities will undertake.

QAA Scotland has been commissioned to develop the new external review method and they’ll work closely with colleagues from Education Scotland to ensure a method that works across our tertiary sector. From AY 2024-25, our sector will see one tertiary framework for quality – the Scottish Tertiary Quality Enhancement Framework (known as TQEF). The alignment and consistent approach to quality will further support wider sector partnership and coherence, and institutions will likely see the further benefits of collaboration and working together.


We welcome the opportunity to discuss with colleagues the funding implications of exploring any type of partnership in more detail, especially a merger, and recommend that institutions speak with their Outcome Managers in the first instance.

SFC Strategic Plan 2022-27

Building a connected, agile, sustainable tertiary education and research system for Scotland.

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