Crichton University Campus

– in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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Photo of George Reid George Reid None 12:00 pm, 22nd March 2007

The next item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-5726, in the name of Alasdair Morgan, on Crichton campus and the University of Glasgow. The debate will conclude without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the work to develop an academic strategy for higher and further education in Dumfries and Galloway but, conscious that the failure of the University of Glasgow to recruit an intake of new undergraduates at the Crichton Campus in Dumfries this year may prejudge the outcome of that strategy, considers that the Scottish Executive should take all necessary steps to ensure that recruitment is resumed for the current year.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 12:34 pm, 22nd March 2007

I thought for some time before lodging the motion for members' business because I was conscious that the proposed withdrawal of the University of Glasgow from the Crichton campus had been the subject of a members' business debate led by Elaine Murray only five weeks ago. I also knew that the participants would be much the same on both occasions. However, I am conscious that the issue remains crucial in the minds of a large number of people and institutions in south-west Scotland and that it has united both political and non-political forces in the region to an unprecedented extent.

Since the last debate, the process that led to it has moved on. First, the University of Glasgow has written to all those who had been accepted as first-year students for the coming academic year to say that their courses will not go ahead. I understand that it is helping them with applications to other institutions.

Secondly, discussions are on-going among various interested parties, including the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, to develop an academic strategy for higher and further education in Dumfries and Galloway. Some of us are a bit puzzled as to why, if such an academic strategy is necessary, it has taken so many years to start to develop one, given that the developments on the Crichton have hardly been going on in secrecy and, indeed, have attracted Government support. There is more than a little suspicion that part of the rationale behind the exercise is to provide a post hoc justification for what is happening or to spread out the train of events so that decisions become irretrievable, especially given the forthcoming dissolution of the Parliament and the hiatus that must inevitably follow that and the election to come.

I hope that the minister will notice that my motion is couched in terms that do not take that cynical view. Rather, the assumption is that if a strategy is being developed and all options are indeed open in the discussions that surround it, it would surely be better if no irrevocable decisions, such as the cancellation of first-year courses in the coming year by the University of Glasgow, should be taken. To make such decisions would surely be to pre-empt whatever will come out of the strategy discussions.

That is why I am calling on the Executive—to be frank, I do not know whom else I could call on—to take all the steps that it can to ensure that recruitment is resumed for the current year. Not all students who had been offered places on courses will still be in a position to avail themselves of offers if courses are resumed, but I am sure that it is not too late to attract a reasonable core of first-year undergraduates. I am equally certain that once one year's cohort of undergraduates is lost, staff will begin to move away, confidence in the possibility of the University of Glasgow's continuing presence will be significantly dented and it will be much more difficult to reinstate that presence if doing so should be the preferred outcome of the strategy review.

Many of us are becoming dismayed that, although there seems to be a significant readiness to refer to the Crichton in Government documents as an example of how things should be done, the continuing commitment is not clear in practical terms. For example, the original rural development white paper that I debated when the Parliament met in Glasgow in 2000 referred to the Crichton campus as an example of how innovative the Executive was being. Also, the consultation document on the merger of the two separate funding councils for higher and further education referred to the Crichton campus as an example of collaboration between the sectors and hence as a justification for the merger of the funding councils.

The development of the Crichton must be seen in the context of the rural development of the south-west of Scotland and the support that it can give to fulfil that area's economic and social needs. Such an approach seems to be taken with the UHI Millennium Institute in the Highlands and Islands. The most recent figures that are available, admittedly for the Crichton as a whole, show that 56 per cent of students there come from families whose members do not have a tradition of going into higher education. It is clear that the project has been working. I would have thought that Nichol Stephen's advice to the funding council on 3 November 2005 that it should ensure that

"there is fair access to further and higher education for all" has been contradicted by what is happening at the Crichton campus.

It is clear—at least to me—that a fair breadth of curriculum is needed at the Crichton and that the collaboration of the new university of the west of Scotland and Dumfries and Galloway College will not, although excellent in itself, provide such breadth. Some have suggested that the Open University can fill that gap, but I do not think that it can, albeit that I yield to none in my admiration for that institution, having gained a degree from it after eight long years. What the University of Glasgow has been doing is not what the Open University was designed to do.

The current collaboration at the Crichton seems to fulfil many Government policy objectives. It is an innovative collaboration between different sectors; it encourages people who would otherwise be denied access to higher education to access it; and it contributes to rural development. In particular, it contributes to the local economy of an area that needs the high-quality input that academic institutions can provide.

Yet it now seems that much of this has been happening by accident. There is no grand design on the part of those who control the central purse strings. We should not be put in a position in which we are struggling to retain one of the main founders of the project. We should be exploring the extent to which the project can be expanded in further innovative areas, so that the economy of Dumfries and Galloway—which has underperformed too much and has been neglected by central Government investment for far too long—can begin to blossom. That is what the minister should be about today.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour 12:40 pm, 22nd March 2007

Five weeks has elapsed since my members' business debate on the issue, on 15 February, and I am disappointed that the proposed meeting between the Scottish Executive, the Scottish funding council and the University of Glasgow has not yet taken place, as far as I am aware. I have been in regular contact with the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Allan Wilson, during that period and I know that, shortly after that debate, he asked the funding council to organise a meeting and to invite the various parties. I hear the sound of dragging feet. Either the University of Glasgow or the funding council—perhaps both—does not seem to be keen to sit at the table with the Executive to try to resolve the problem. I suspect that they see the fact that the Parliament is about to go into dissolution as an opportunity to kick the matter to the other side of the election, as Alasdair Morgan has suggested.

On Tuesday evening, I was pleased to join students and staff in demonstrating outside Easterbrook Hall, where Sir Muir Russell, the principal of the University of Glasgow, was giving a lecture that was rather ironically entitled "The Future of Higher Education". What a cheek, considering what he is doing to damage higher education in Dumfries and Galloway. The following morning, I was disappointed to hear Sir Muir Russell give an interview to BBC Radio Scotland on the Dumfries and Galloway opt-out in which he seemed to dismiss any reconsideration by the university court of the decision to cancel the September intake at the Crichton. To give him his due, however, he said that the University of Glasgow was participating in the joint academic strategy for the Crichton and that the university might have a future in Dumfries.

Staff and students also met Sir Muir Russell on Tuesday afternoon—difficult as that was for them, as the university at the Crichton is now on holiday, which meant that the students could not provide the presence that they might otherwise have had. However, I am sorry to say that, from the reports that I have heard of that meeting, it seems that he was not receptive at all to the points that were put to him by the staff and the students.

Since the previous debate on the issue, I have read the minute of the funding council's meeting at which it considered the University of Glasgow's request for 220 additional fully funded places. The funding council considered three options. The first was to accept the bid and to grant the places; the second was to reject the bid; and the third was to try to find a compromise. Contrary to the impression that is being given by the court of the University of Glasgow, the funding council did not reject the bid outright. However, the funding council said that it would be difficult for it to accept the bid because that could set a precedent for other universities. Other universities that had problems might say, "You did it for the University of Glasgow, why can you not do it for us?" The funding council decided on the third way, which was to try to find a compromise through the development of the academic strategy. I believe that a meeting of all stakeholders took place on 6 March, at which the University of Glasgow was represented.

It is unfortunate that the University of Glasgow's lack of commitment to the Crichton has overshadowed the statement by the university of the west of Scotland that it intends to increase its commitment to Dumfries and Galloway. That is good news, and I am pleased to say that my youngest son, who is a student, is considering studying at that university. Nevertheless, the university of the west of Scotland cannot substitute for the courses that are offered by the University of Glasgow.

I was pleased to hear in Alasdair Morgan's speech that the party consensus on fighting to keep the University of Glasgow's support for the Crichton has been retained. Mr Michael Russell, who is standing for the SNP in my constituency, issued a press release last week in which he stated that the SNP will make it

"absolutely certain that the Glasgow University presence at the Crichton is not lost".

The trouble is that he did not go on to explain how. I believe that Mr Salmond said the same thing at a recent meeting in Annan. Is Mr Russell saying that Mr Salmond is going to instruct the funding council to give the University of Glasgow all the money that it has asked for? If so, that would require the amendment of section 9 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005, which introduced a safeguard against ministerial interference in the funding council's decisions to prevent ministers from directing funds towards universities in their constituencies or in marginal constituencies. It is not that easy.

In wrapping up—I know that others wish to speak—I yet again make a plea to the University of Glasgow to reconsider its decision. The university is £2 million in profit and the Crichton campus was on course this year to deliver savings in the deficit. Account should be taken of further developments such as the comprehensive spending review and the review of higher education funding. The university does not need to take this decision at this time. It can hold back and see how things develop.

Photo of George Reid George Reid None

Murray Tosh has indicated that he will drop down the list in favour of his colleague Alex Fergusson.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 12:45 pm, 22nd March 2007

I would have been perfectly happy if Murray Tosh had spoken next, but I am happy to step in.

I congratulate Alasdair Morgan on securing the debate. Although the issue was debated only five weeks ago, that does not mean that the Crichton campus is further down the list of priorities in the region, half of which I represent. It would be very tempting and easy just to repeat the arguments that were made when Elaine Murray's motion was debated five weeks ago, but I will resist that temptation.

Too many people have been hinting that the new university of the west of Scotland, which will be brought about by the merger of the University of Paisley and Bell College, will fill the gap that will be left by the University of Glasgow. However, although I applaud that merger and the new institution's commitment to the Crichton campus, the fact remains that the Crichton needs the University of Glasgow if it is to remain a truly credible project. That is because the University of Glasgow provides the education that is necessary to allow local people to be educated and trained in the region to fulfil local needs. To put the matter simply, if our young have to go away for their education and training, they are far more likely to stay away.

I can put the issue no better than by quoting a letter dated 9 March 2007 that was sent to the First Minister on behalf of Dumfries and Galloway's children's panel advisory committee. The letter states:

"The Dumfries and Galloway Council is required to meet its statutory duties and to maintain appropriate service delivery to support the care and welfare of Children in this region. A range of national and local initiatives has been developed to address the shortage of qualified social work staff.

The retention, recruitment and motivation of social work and social care staff is essential not only to sustain current child care arrangements but also to support the changes Scottish Ministers are driving forward and set out in the provisions of the Draft Children's Services (Scotland) Bill.

A partnership agreement with the University of Glasgow Crichton Campus to facilitate the delivery of a Master of Arts (Social Sciences) with honours in Social Work was agreed in 2004. Integral to this partnership was that Dumfries and Galloway Council would provide funding for a full time University Teacher position."

After continuing at considerable length on the importance of that aspect of the project, the letter finishes by stating:

"The Children's Hearing System in Dumfries and Galloway and the Children of this region require the Scottish Executive and Scottish Ministers to demonstrate the cross cutting, innovative and flexible approach to ensuring that the University of Glasgow is supported to continue its important presence on the Crichton Campus as it is looking for all those involved with the care and welfare of Children to embrace the changes set out in 'Getting it Right for Every Child'. ...the Children of this region deserve our best efforts and I would request that collectively Scottish Ministers cut across departmental boundaries and seek to work in partnership with Glasgow University to secure the future of the Crichton Campus."

As members will know, Dumfries and Galloway Council's social work department has had a pretty hard time recently following a damning report from the Social Work Inspection Agency. A major shake-up is taking place and some tough decisions are being taken. How much harder will those decisions and restructuring be if we cannot even train our local people locally?

Things are happening at the Crichton. Only this morning, I was made aware of a new type of institution—a cross between a business school and a research centre—which will specialise in renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable products. That is an exciting, innovative and relevant development that wants to be on the Crichton and that would—like the courses that are currently provided by the Crichton—be in touch with the region's needs.

As Alasdair Morgan's motion suggests, it is imperative that we reverse the decision that has been made about student intake this September. Thus far, frankly, I think that ministers have promised much but delivered little despite having more than a year's warning of the crisis. The Parliament may be about to go into dissolution, but the Executive is not. Ministers can still act during April to keep the matter on the table. I am afraid that, locally, the Lib-Lab Administration is being seen to have let Dumfries and Galloway down. That may not be easily forgiven.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green 12:49 pm, 22nd March 2007

I congratulate Alasdair Morgan on securing today's debate. It is important that we have another debate on the subject because, although it has been only five weeks since we raised our concerns in the original debate, in that time we have seen very little positive progress from the Executive, a lack of successful and visible action and a lack of backbone in the discussions with the funding council and the University of Glasgow. The Executive has shown a lack of commitment to the Crichton and a lack of results.

Right at the heart of the matter is the lack of a national strategy for higher education throughout Scotland. We do not need an academic strategy for Dumfries and Galloway; we need an academic strategy for rural Scotland. We need a world in which £15 million does not go to the university of the Highlands and Islands when the Crichton receives only £1 million. We need a proper, thought-out strategy so that we may analyse and put on record the key role that is played by further and higher education institutions in rural areas and the support that they give to the economic and social needs of those areas through research based on local issues, as happens at the Crichton; through engagement with local practitioners, as happens at the Crichton; and through vocational teaching to strengthen the local structure of relevant services and professions, the sharing of facilities and the building of the local economy.

The achievements of the Crichton are many. It delivers into the local economy expertise in key services, such as renewable energy and tourism. It widens participation—as Alasdair Morgan mentioned, 56 per cent of the student intake consists of students who are the first in their family to go to university. That is a proud and important achievement of the Crichton, which we lose at our peril.

The Crichton puts Dumfries and Galloway on the map by attracting international students from more than 20 countries and it brings internationally rated research to the region. Like Alex Fergusson, I have been informed about the new type of institution at the Crichton that will be announced next week. It will be a cross between a business school and a research centre and it will work with local energy consultancy companies and voluntary organisations, such as the Southern Uplands Partnership. I trust that the minister will be able at least to support that initiative and to support research and development, postgraduate work and taught courses at the Crichton.

We have heard much from ministers about supporting the Crichton. We heard Jim Wallace say in 2004:

"The Crichton campus in Dumfries has proven to be a positive model of collaboration between HE and FE institutions which has successfully worked with local partners to widen access to those in the area who would not otherwise have experienced higher education."

Jim Wallace continued:

"I would look to the Council to continue to support this type of cross sectoral initiative."

I say to the minister that those have turned out to be empty words and rhetoric, with no positive action flowing from them. He is in danger of losing this flagship development, whose value his Executive has trumpeted.

I have two questions for the minister that flow from today's debate and the previous members' business debate. What has the minister done since Elaine Murray's debate to achieve the success that he was positive he would be able to achieve? What will the minister do over the next 10 days to ensure that he secures a positive result before dissolution?

Photo of Rosie Kane Rosie Kane SSP 12:54 pm, 22nd March 2007

I thank Alasdair Morgan for securing a debate on Crichton campus and I thank Elaine Murray for doing so on a previous occasion.

Usually towards the end of a debate, most of the important points will have been made, but I will not apologise for repeating some, because the arguments in the fight to save Crichton campus cannot be made often enough.

Over the past few months, much of the discussion has focused on cost, profit and loss. There are conflicting views about who holds the purse and who can save Crichton campus. The University of Glasgow claims that because the campus is making a loss, new students cannot be admitted in September, but the university as a whole has a surplus that is far greater than the current deficit at Crichton, so it could easily step in to save this valuable resource.

Given that Crichton has been up and running for only 10 years, it has not had a decent chance to bed in or to show its true colours in respect of what it can put back into the community. At the moment, the campus is not fully resourced—it lacks a students union, recreational and sports facilities and a canteen. If it were fully resourced, Crichton would be more than capable of balancing its books, so it should be afforded the chance to do just that.

The Executive has bailed out many a big business that has been in strife, but it will not get round the table with the University of Glasgow and the Scottish funding council to take positive steps to save Crichton campus. The university, the funding council and the Executive are blaming each other, but it is within their powers to step in and save the day, either individually or collectively.

The debate is not just about the current balance sheet; it should focus on the social aspects and the future. The fact that Crichton campus has a higher ratio of disabled students than any other higher education institution in Scotland means that it lifts barriers for many people and opens up the world of higher education to folk who would normally be excluded from it. As has been mentioned, we should celebrate that.

Crichton opens its doors to students who have families and jobs and to people who are carers. It offers a unique setting in which students feel supported and, therefore, comfortable and able to complete their education, which is about enhancing lives, expanding minds and empowering people. Crichton is growing the future—we cannot put a price on that, nor can we let the institution dwindle.

Is the minister aware that lecturers from Glasgow were encouraged to settle in the community, put their children in local schools and become part of the wider community? That was a good thing, but what are those workers to do if the campus is allowed to disintegrate? They made important changes when they brought their valuable skills and expertise to the campus in the name of education. What will be the effect on their families and on the local economy?

The Executive was made aware of the threat to the University of Glasgow's presence at Crichton campus in a letter from Muir Russell in June last year, but for some reason it has chosen to sit on its hands. It is now time to take action. I strongly urge the Executive, the University of Glasgow and the funding council collectively to do the principled thing and get their fingers out to find a solution.

Finally, I congratulate the students from Crichton campus who have spoken up, demonstrated and asked difficult questions of the powers that be, and who continue to fight tooth and nail to save their education and the future education of people they do not even know. I ask the powers that be, who are letting go of a unique and valuable resource, to please show the same courage and determination to save Crichton. It is often argued by MSPs that we need to keep Trident to save jobs. I strongly disagree with that argument, but if we apply the same principles, keeping Crichton will cost a lot less and will produce a much more positive outcome. I sincerely hope that the minister will tell us that a solution will be found and that Crichton campus will be saved, resourced and developed.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 12:58 pm, 22nd March 2007

As a former member for the South of Scotland, I would have wished to participate in the previous debate on the subject that was held some weeks ago, which was initiated by Dr Elaine Murray but, as members will recall, personal circumstances prevented my being in Parliament. I am therefore grateful to Alasdair Morgan for facilitating a second debate in which he, as other members have done, made an excellent and forceful speech.

I read the Official Report of the previous debate and found much in it with which I agreed strongly. Members made clear then—and have made clear again today—the importance of the Crichton campus and the University of Glasgow's participation in it. They have also focused on the impact of the decision on the south-west's economy, and have highlighted in particular the importance of many courses in sustaining local services including, as Alex Fergusson pointed out, local government services; in providing opportunities for people who not only live in, but move to, Dumfries and Galloway; and in ensuring a sense of equity.

I understand why, in the previous debate, Allan Wilson cautioned members against making inappropriate regional comparisons. The UHI is, indeed, based on a different model, and any comparisons that are made between and among regions must depend on such factors' being taken into account. Nevertheless, in the previous debate, Dr Murray made some very telling comparisons—that have since been circulated by, among others, Mrs Hilary Grieve on behalf of the Crichton Trust—about the investment that appears to be available to sustain higher education in the south-west of Scotland and that which is available in other areas. By drawing such comparisons, we are not knocking what has been done for UHI; instead, we are demanding that resources be made available equitably throughout the country.

I also acknowledge the point that Allan Wilson made in the previous debate about the difficulties that are faced by the Executive in telling universities and the Scottish funding council how to operate their budgets; indeed, Dr Murray made that point again in this debate. However, we must point out that the funding this is made available to the funding council and the universities is public money that is provided by taxpayers. The people who discharge the responsibilities that have been given to them are, through ministers, accountable ultimately to the people who have been elected by taxpayers.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

Does the member agree that a constructive way forward might be to focus on Dumfries and Galloway's teacher recruitment problems? Perhaps ministerial guidance on how the retention of arts and humanities courses can provide people with a route into teaching might help to influence the funding council in its search for a positive outcome.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

That suggestion sounds perfectly sensible. I do not know whether ministerial guidance is necessarily the right mechanism to use, but I have no doubt that the minister can play a very important role.

This issue poses a very significant challenge to the minister's political skills, because it has become clear that, in this case, he does not have the levers to direct. Of course, that raises profound philosophical questions about whether anyone should have the power to direct. Nevertheless, people in Dumfries and Galloway are entitled to expect not only that their services are sustained but that the opportunities that exist in other parts of the country flourish in their region.

No matter whether the minister has 10 days, 10 weeks or even 10 years left in office, he is faced with the challenge of finding some way of brokering a deal that will ensure that the University of Glasgow and, perhaps, the Scottish funding council, understand their responsibilities. After all, an issue of equity is at stake: there is a perception in the south-west of Scotland that what is being done is not fair and must be put right. That is the challenge for the current Executive—or, should the matter not be resolved by 3 May, for whoever forms the Executive after the election.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 1:03 pm, 22nd March 2007

I congratulate Alasdair Morgan on securing this welcome debate, which allows us to continue to acknowledge the Crichton campus's important contribution to improving access to higher education in the south-west. Members have already highlighted that contribution, which I expect to continue over the piece. Although I appreciate people's genuine concerns about the University of Glasgow's announcement that it will not have an undergraduate intake at Crichton for 2007-08, I believe that that must be seen in the wider context of other significant developments at Crichton.

At this point, I must correct Rosie Kane. This is not a fight to save Crichton campus, and I am sure that other members will wish to join me in reassuring the good people of the south-west and beyond that the Crichton campus is not under threat in any shape, manner or form. As several members—including Alex Fergusson and Elaine Murray—have mentioned, since the previous debate on the issue, ministers have approved the merger of the University of Paisley and Bell College, which, subject to the will of Parliament after the election, will be implemented from August. Significantly, the new merged institution will operate a four-campus model that will provide local delivery to meet the needs of people in the west of Scotland.

Contrary to what Alex Fergusson and, to an extent, Murray Tosh said, the Executive has a good record in supporting and funding the expansion of such provision, and provision in rural Scotland more generally. The University of Glasgow and the University of Paisley receive a combined total of 150 funded places, which is worth a total of £775,000 at this year's prices. Funding per place stands at £5,165, which is 4 per cent more than the funding per place for the UHI and a full 13 per cent more than the average for all higher education institutions in Scotland. The funding per place for the Crichton campus is calculated on the basis of the average funding for Glasgow and Paisley universities.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party

Should it be an objective of public policy that higher education courses of the type that the University of Glasgow currently offers be available somewhere in the south-west of Scotland? If so, can the minister achieve that objective through guidance to the Scottish funding council?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

It should be the objective of public policy to secure not a regional approach to higher education provision throughout Scotland, but an approach that determines that quality education provision is available throughout Scotland to everyone who has the ability to access it. We can, and do, secure quality provision in the range of institutions that we fund in Scotland through the Scottish funding council. The reason why we are in the process of establishing the UHI and why our funding for rural provision is higher than our funding for urban provision is that those are means by which we can ensure that quality provision is available across the broad spectrum of urban and rural Scotland.

For the first time at the Crichton campus, there will be the potential to deliver engineering and science courses in collaboration with Dumfries and Galloway College, which is a major advance. Dumfries and Galloway College's co-location at Crichton is continuing to progress, supported by the Scottish funding council's £28 million investment. That funding has been provided to the college for the relocation, and to the Crichton partners for shared facilities, such as the new library, which is an important factor in the introduction of honours courses. Other possibilities for co-location and sharing of facilities will be explored.

Photo of Chris Ballance Chris Ballance Green

Does the minister accept that there is a difference between higher and further education and, if so, does he accept that if one of those no longer takes place at the Crichton campus, it will be a real loss?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

Through close working with Dumfries and Galloway College and other colleges, the newly merged institution will be able to provide strong transitional support for students who transfer from college to university. Scottish colleges are successful in providing that transitional route from further education into higher education, through the important higher national certificate and higher national diploma. The role of encouraging more people to access higher education is fundamental to the future expansion of further education and will, I think, help to develop the Crichton campus exponentially. However, I acknowledge the point that the member makes.

What I have said does not mean that we are complacent in any way about the commitment that we have given to engage with the Scottish funding council, the University of Glasgow and other Crichton partners about the issues that have been raised over the future delivery of higher and further education in the region.

As I have emphasised previously—Murray Tosh and Elaine Murray made the point, too—such discussions should not be based on the incorrect premise that ministers should, or indeed legally can, direct funding to a particular institution. I assume that we would all agree that that is not the solution. Our key aim is to ensure that adequate further and higher education is available in the south of Scotland, and that that provision is quality provision. I very much welcome the funding council's clear commitment to that, and the engagement of the academic partners and other stakeholders in taking that forward for Dumfries and Galloway through development of the academic strategy, which is welcomed in the motion.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I hear what the minister is saying, but can he confirm for the sake of clarity that he believes that the quality of educational provision, to which he referred, on the Crichton campus can be provided without the presence of the University of Glasgow?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I do not envisage the University of Glasgow's not being present on the campus. There is a danger in the member's point that he may be arguing that provision from the University of Paisley and Bell College is inferior to that which is provided by other academic institutions. The University of Glasgow is a prestigious academic institution, but I do not believe that its provision is higher quality than that which is provided by other academic institutions.

The Deputy First Minister and I met a cross-party delegation from Dumfries and Galloway Council and representatives of the Crichton campus on 22 February. Following that helpful meeting, I discussed Crichton with the chair of the Scottish funding council and the principal of the University of Glasgow. Earlier this week, I met the principal of the University of Glasgow and the chief executive of the Scottish funding council, which is what I gave a commitment to do at the previous debate on this issue. At that meeting, the principal confirmed the university's commitment to its involvement in development of the academic strategy for the region. The university has written to its staff at Crichton indicating that there will be no fundamental change in its staffing in 2007-08. The university has also made no decision at this time on its undergraduate provision at Crichton beyond 2007-08 and is continuing to deliver its social work and initial teacher training courses.

In respect of student places for 2007-08, the Scottish funding council has confirmed that it is willing to fund additional places at Crichton for the University of Paisley and Bell College. As I mentioned earlier, the merger provides new opportunities to enhance existing provision both in subject availability and level. The Open University has also indicated that it may be able to offer liberal-arts provision. Discussions on those areas continue to be taken forward by the Scottish funding council. As Alex Fergusson mentioned—I know other members have been involved in discussions—it may be possible to establish new postgraduate provision in the region. I fully support that development and expect the funding council to do all in its powers to help to take it forward. I discussed that with partners on Monday, and my officials continue to progress the matter with the sector, including with the University of Glasgow.

I am sure that members will agree that those are welcome developments since we last debated the issue. I agree with Alasdair Morgan that development of the academic strategy is fundamental to maintaining the important role of Crichton and to continuing and enhancing the level of provision there. It is absolutely fundamental that the people in that area are wholly engaged in developing their local academic strategy. The first meeting on development of the academic strategy took place at the beginning of March and I welcome the funding council's proposal that the strategy should be prepared by late spring. It is important that the strategy be made available as soon as possible to enable it to inform the planning that is being taken forward by the academic partners and other stakeholders. It should—I believe that it will—provide a shared vision for the future and identify the academic programmes that will best serve the needs of the people of Dumfries and Galloway and its wider economy.

I close by re-emphasising the Executive's continuing support for the Crichton campus. We recognise fully what it has achieved to date for the south-west, and we want to ensure that it is able to develop, to grow, to provide the range of courses that are best suited to the area, as determined by local people in their local academic development strategy, and to provide access to those courses.

Meeting suspended until 14:15.

On resuming—