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Speech: Liam McArthur during college funding debate

November 22, 2012 2:58 PM
Originally published by Scottish Liberal Democrats

Presiding Officer,

It seems that barely a day goes by at the moment, without apologies being offered to the Chamber or attempts made to surreptitiously doctor the official record.

In that spirit, let me start by offering an apology of my own. Looking back at the debate on colleges last week, initiated by Liz Smith, I appear to have misled parliament.

This was inadvertent and certainly done in good faith. Nevertheless, in suggesting that Mr Russell is "not a man who ever finds it easy to say "I am wrong"", I may have created a false impression.

The Education Secretary may still not find it easy saying sorry, but he is certainly getting in what many would consider is some long overdue practice.

Presiding Officer, it is right that we are having this debate today, but it is testimony to the mess that has been created by the government, and in particular the Education Secretary, in their handling of Scotland's college sector.

What is most striking about this omnishambles is the extent to which it has been largely self-inflicted - through an unwillingness to properly listen and an over-fondness to assert and lambast.

In a remarkable show of chutzpah, Mr Russell chose this week of all weeks to refer his colleague, the Minister for Transport to the Ombudsman over the boorach being made of the Gourock to Dunoon ferry service. I dare say Keith Brown is tempted to return the favour in relation to colleges.

No-one disputes that there is complexity in college funding, not least given the differences between spending in academic and financial years. But, as the Education Committee has established, instead of making the situation better and clearer, Mr Russell has succeeded in making it worse and more opaque.

Not only has he been hung by his own petard, Mr Russell has managed to use it to string up the First Minister as well - nodding along happily all the while.

And it's not as if offers of help were not made. During last week's debate, Liz Smith intervened, rather helpfully I thought, to suggest that there was confusion around college funding figures due to a lack of consistency in how the figures are measured.

How did Mr Russell respond to this plea in mitigation on his behalf? With grateful and humble thanks? With a statement of his determination to make things clearer in future?

Well not quite: "the figures are quite clear on where we are", he opined. "Where we are is quite clear from the baseline figures and the additional money that we have added in every single year is quite clear".

A further candidate, no doubt, for the Alex Salmond award for about exact an answer as anybody has given in any Parliament.

What is quite clear is that there is a cut in college funding this year. Over the Spending Review period, Audit Scotland calculates this to be in the order of 24% in real terms.

Scotland's Colleges, in their briefing, point to a reduction in revenue funding of £113m between 2010/11 and 2014/15. In terms of the teaching grant and fee waiver, they estimate the drop by the end of the current financial year to be around £73m.

Against the backdrop of a 6% real terms cut in the government's overall budget, it is hard to square these figures from Audit Scotland and Scotland's Colleges with the assertion by Mr Russell and Mr Salmond that colleges are a priority for the SNP.

And it this fundamental contradiction that needs to be addressed. Doing so will require additional funding to be made available, specifically in relation to the teaching budget, and I will return to this shortly.

Of course, the risk is that the shambles of the last few days and weeks distract Mr Russell and the government from the task of addressing the genuine concerns of Scotland's vital college sector.

In that context, I see the purpose of today's debate as allowing parliament a further opportunity to set out where it believes the government needs to re-think its approach and chart a different course - and I am very grateful to Hugh Henry and Liz Smith for their support in helping make this happen.

But this is not just about money or changes in policy in various areas, important though these are.

It is also about a change in attitude, a change in mindset and, if that proves impossible for the current incumbent, then a change in Education Secretary as well.

There is no getting away from the fact that recent events have called into question the competence of the SNP government and the judgment and approach of the Education Secretary himself.

Nowhere has this been more clearly illustrated than in Mr Russell's ludicrously heavy-handed treatment of the former chair of Stow College.

With growing evidence that this scandalous, intimidatory behaviour is symptomatic of the Education Secretary's style, little wonder that some in the sector are now openly expressing a lack of confidence in Mr Russell's ability to respond positively to their needs.

As Graham Hay, chair of Angus college stated at the weekend, Mr Russell acts in a "telling not listening style." Mr Hay added in relation to the regionalisation process, that there was "no real engagement with the sector, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and was forcing the sector down that route. He certainly didn't appreciate contrary opinions. For a government that keeps talking about independence, independent views are not warmly welcomed", he concluded.

This is not a healthy relationship. It is not one that demonstrates mutual respect. And, given how critical our colleges are to helping Scotland emerge strongly from the current economic difficulties, it is not a relationship we can afford to leave as it is.

Despite these serious misgivings, let me be clear, a number of the initiatives being taken forward by the Scottish Government in relation to our colleges are ones I support. Indeed they command support across this Chamber.

As I have stated before, and reflected in the amendment today, this includes recognising the benefits that are achievable through closer working on a regional basis by colleges, universities, local authorities and, of course, employers.

Such collaboration, though, must always be driven by educational need and the pace at which it happens can be critical to its success. With reduced budgets and an expectation by Ministers that college reserves are to be raided to pay for mergers, it is not hard to see why concerns exist - from Audit Scotland to the chair of Angus college.

But Mr Russell is simply wrong to assert that those who question what he is doing or the way in which he is doing it are opposed to change or don't have the interests of colleges at heart. While this is the narrative he wishes to create, it is one that is entirely false.

Mr Russell's performance during the debate last week exemplified this. His motion today suggests he has learned little over the last eight days and remains defiant in rejecting the concerns that continue to be raised across the college sector.

Last week, Mr Russell asserted his belief that colleges had been guilty of failing students, staff, employers, local communities and even Scotland itself.

Prior to his arrival as Education Secretary, the college sector was littered, in his words with "duplication and.. inefficiency and waste".

This 'year zero' view of the world and blasé denial of the significant contribution our colleges have made over many decades is frankly ridiculous. It flies in the face of the facts and indeed the findings of the David Hume Institute report, published earlier this month.

The authors of this report highlight the substantial value of the college sector to the Scottish economy, potentially up to £1.2 billion over the next 8 years. And while they accept colleges must adapt to meet new challenges and new opportunities, as Jeremy Peat observed:

"change must not be at the cost of the crucial role the colleges play in providing opportunities to many from diverse parts of society, nor must the critical close relationships with local businesses be placed at risk".

There is evidence, however, that the way in which the government is pursuing its reform agenda and targeting spending in a sharply declining budget is having a disproportionate impact on some of the groups to which colleges have been particularly successful in extending access and opportunities.

NUS Scotland make the point that shifts in college participation away from part-time to full time, from mature students to young students and from women to men have implications for participation and accessibility.

As John Henderson of Scotland's Colleges has said "one of the enormous strengths of the college system is its ability to cater for a diverse range of students at different times in their lives. Any narrowing of that risks limiting the opportunities available".

So while the government is right to reflect the specific challenges facing our young people - particularly with youth unemployment currently standing at around 100,000, having risen sharply over the last quarter - it is wrong to downplay the importance of making sure colleges are able to continue meeting the needs of a wider group of learners.

The Minister and some of his backbenchers have dismissed the reduction in course provision as simply the stripping out of "hobby" courses. This is palpably untrue but again betrays an unwillingness by Mr Russell to face up to the consequences of the decisions and choices that he and his government have taken.

I would suggest, for example, that the reduction by a quarter in the number of female students studying at colleges in Scotland since 2007 is a statistic that should have Mr Russell asking serious questions about the impact his approach to college funding and reorganisation is having.

For those from less well-off backgrounds too, there must be concerns at what is happening and the reduced opportunities available. Already, as Murdo Fraser reminded the Chamber last week, participation amongst the 20% most deprived cohort has fallen from 83.3 per 1000 in 2007-8 to 72.5 per 1000 in 2010-11.

Again I can see no useful purpose served by the Cabinet Secretary blithely dismissing this alarming trend, not least given the commitment shared across the parliament to widening access in both further and higher education.

For the sake of the choice and quality of course provision on offer to students, the opportunities available to the wide range of individuals that colleges have been so good at supporting, the connections that local businesses have with colleges in their area, the morale of staff working in this critical sector.

For all these reasons, I believe the Education Secretary must look again at the approach he is taking to funding, to reform and to the relationship he has with those in the sector.

This will require - as Scotland's Colleges, NUS Scotland and teaching unions make clear - additional funding through the current budget negotiations, a discussion we will have with Mr Russell's colleague, John Swinney.

It will also require a proper, rigorous and independent assessment of the costs and benefits of the regionalisation programme, as recommended by Audit Scotland.

And it will require a change in the abrasive and intolerant style that has characterised too much of the Education Secretary's behaviour towards, not simply the college sector but other parts of the education landscape in Scotland.

If this does not happen, and as a matter of urgency, confidence in this SNP government and this Education Secretary will continue to erode - potentially to the point of no return.

I have pleasure in moving the amendment in my name.