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.