Crichton University Campus

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:40 pm on 22nd March 2007.

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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.