Scotland’s Colleges

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29 September 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-00955, in the name of Liz Smith, on Scotland’s colleges.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

If there is a sector in Scottish education that has made the most substantial progress in recent years, it is the college sector. Its institutions have delivered excellence in many aspects, have transformed the quality of college courses and have widened access to many students, of all ages, who in previous times would not have been able to take advantage of further education.

Since colleges were granted their independence by the Conservative Government in 1992, they have enjoyed much greater autonomy and much greater flexibility, which has allowed them to adapt to the demands of their local regions, to build much better links with other educational institutions and to develop courses around the different needs of individual students. The Parliament pays tribute to that work and to the enthusiastic manner in which colleges have set about dealing with the current challenges that face them. In the vast majority of cases, they have an outstanding record. That is why they are, quite rightly, puzzled and upset that, despite those achievements, they are being asked to accept the brunt of the education spending cuts in this year's spending review—cuts that come hard and fast on the back of an average 10 per cent reduction in budgets last year.

Last week, John Spencer, the convener of Scotland’s Colleges, said that it was inconceivable that colleges would be able to absorb more cuts without harm being done to student places, to staffing or to the quality of courses. Over the period 2011 to 2015, those cuts could amount to more than 20 per cent in real terms, assuming that student support is maintained at a flat cash level. That view is echoed by Mike Dibsall, the principal of Telford College, who has said:

“To think that the sector could operate or indeed maintain provision after having our budgets slashed by 10 per cent last year was challenging, but to have them reduced again by 14.3 per cent spread over the next three years is just baffling. This is an incredibly difficult feat and I dread to think of what the sector will look like in a few years time when these new cuts are felt.”

He is referring to the fact that the further education sector is likely to be asked to cope with having its funding cut in real terms from £544 million to £435 million in 2011-15 while it watches the higher education sector get an increase from £926 million to £982 million.

Why has the Scottish Government chosen to punish the colleges so hard, particularly when they will be integral to the new Scottish Government flagship policy of offering opportunities to all 16 to 19-year-olds, when unemployment among young people is high and when businesses across Scotland have heaped praise on the college sector for its ability to train more students and apprentices in the new skills required for today's fast-changing world? Surely, there is not much logic to the Government’s position.

I can suggest one reason why the Scottish Government has taken this action. It is because of its persistent refusal to bring in additional sources of private income to higher education, thereby putting additional strain on the whole education budget.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I assume that the member’s inference is that her colleagues down south have levered in private finance to further education and have not, therefore, passed on a cut to the further education sector. Why is it, then, that cuts to further education budgets south of the border are twice as much as they are in Scotland?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

For the simple reason that the Scottish National Party Government will not accept the fact that it cannot just say that it does not approve of the principle of asking anyone to pay to learn. It cannot say that to students from the rest of the United Kingdom, who face the exact same problem because they are being asked to pay in Scotland. That does not affect the argument that the member has just raised.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Does the member want further education students to pay in Scotland?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

There are many FE students who might have higher education places in colleges and, if they come from the rest of the UK, they will surely be paying.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I say to Mr Doris that interventions should be made officially.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Along with many in the university sector and many public figures such as Lord Sutherland and Sir Andrew Cubie, the Scottish Conservatives have persistently argued that free higher education is unsustainable. We maintain that position, notwithstanding the claims from the Scottish Government that it will plug the funding gap for the next three years. At what price to our colleges? The Scottish Government cannot get away from the fact that 1,000 staff have been shed in the FE sector so far this year, the school college partnership work has been significantly reduced and, despite claims to the contrary, the number of learners has decreased.

The Scottish Government can no longer claim that there cannot be greater flexibility in its budget decisions about HE and FE. Until budget year 2010-11, the Scottish Government had separate budget lines for capital expenditure for the two sectors but for budget years beyond that the Scottish funding council has one pot for both sectors, so the Scottish Government can no longer claim that its hands are so tied. There is new scope for flexibility and therefore there should be much greater scope for a more equitable share between the two sectors.

I do not for a minute take issue with the desire of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council to examine whether HE and FE are delivering best value for money. I do not doubt for a minute that some rationalisation is necessary—even some mergers in the future—but let us hope that the handling of that is not condensed into a six-week period like it was in the disgraceful situation at Abertay and Dundee, tellingly described by Lord Sutherland at the Education and Culture Committee on Tuesday as a “merger by fax”. Reform is essential, but so is the continuing autonomy of the sector and so is colleges’ desire to play an equal part in any tripartite discussions that must take place between the Scottish Government, the Scottish funding council and the colleges themselves. Discussions about the future structure of our colleges and universities will be extremely important and they must include the fullest possible consultation with all parties.

I will now concentrate on the priorities of the Scottish Government. It has made it very plain that there is to be a much greater focus on the provision of opportunities for 16 to 24-year-olds and especially those in the 16 to 19 age group. It is a laudable ambition; but why then cut colleges’ resources? By definition, they will be expected to play a key role in this initiative, which will make additional demands on the college sector. As I understand the Scottish Government’s proposals, regionalisation is at the heart of the post-16 programme and it is predicted that there will be some savings as a result. However, I cannot see how any of those savings can possibly occur in a sufficiently short timescale to avoid serious pressures on colleges as they try to develop post-16 arrangements. Indeed, if possible mergers were to be part of restructuring, it is possible that costs could increase rather than decrease in the short term. The Scottish Government should be aware that there is a lack of evidence to suggest that significant savings can be made in the short term.

Let us not forget that there are many other student groups at college: part-time students, mature students and a minority of apprentices, who are all an essential part of the work of colleges and essential to ensuring that we have a mobile and flexible workforce across the economy. How will they fare if more demands to help with prioritising the 16 to 19 reform are laid on colleges at the same time as crippling budget cuts? What will happen to the provision of HE places—28 per cent of the total HE provision—especially for students from disadvantaged areas? Does that really sit well with the principles that underpin this Government’s priorities? I do not think so.

The Scottish Government’s economic strategy commits to maintaining bursary support to help young people to remain engaged in college and training. It is right to ask the Government whether it can confirm that student support in colleges will be maintained in real terms over the course of the spending review period. Bursary support is crucial to many students who would not otherwise be able to access further or higher education and it is also crucial to maintain a diverse student intake. We need a cast-iron assurance that bursary support will be maintained and that there will be no prospect of increasing inequality between the level of support for FE and for HE students.

I return to where I began by praising the outstanding work that has been undertaken by the college sector over recent years. Colleges have coped admirably with the challenges put upon them and they are undoubtedly a hugely important part of the improvements in post-school education. They should be congratulated rather than punished by the Government, which has muddled its priorities and ended up with a total lack of coherence in FE and HE policy.

It is incumbent on us all to heed the warnings in formal communications from Scotland’s Colleges about what could happen as a result of the spending review. The organisation fears further cuts. In the worst case that some predict, which is a cut by a fifth in the total for colleges, colleges fear cuts in student places or—if places can be maintained—cuts in teaching time. The colleges are also fearful about whether they will be able to maintain the college estate.

As I said, the college sector has made outstanding progress in recent years, but there is considerable doubt about whether it will emerge as anything other than weaker. That would be hugely detrimental to Scotland and to our economic potential.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the profound concern expressed by Scotland’s Colleges that last week’s Spending Review has severely damaged the ability of colleges to maintain student places and staffing levels, and their ability to deliver quality education across all areas of the further education sector; notes that the core funding cuts to colleges of 13.5% could result in a real-terms cut of over 20% if student support is maintained at a flat-cash level; believes that this is a direct consequence of the Scottish Government’s refusal to allow additional private sources of finance in the higher education sector thereby putting additional financial strain on every other area of education spending, and calls on the Scottish Government to explain why, in light of the findings of the post-16 review, it has severely cut back on the highly successful school/college partnerships that provide enhanced vocational opportunities for young people.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

In my statement to the chamber two weeks ago, I made clear the breadth and depth of Scotland’s post-16 education system. I also made clear the value that the Government places on the various parts of that system, in which we as a Scottish people make an enormous investment of about £2 billion a year—£50 million every week. Many hundreds of thousands of people the length and breadth of Scotland have benefited from that system and they will continue to do so.

Two weeks ago, I made clear the considerable contribution that colleges—overwhelmingly our most significant providers of vocational education—make to the Government’s overall purpose. I am happy to reflect that again and to pay tribute to their work.

I will name one example from many. Since the onset of the recession, our colleges have provided a valuable buffer from unemployment for tens of thousands of our young people. Let no one doubt the support that we have provided to allow them to do so. In the past three years, we have provided funding of £60 million on top of the £2.6 billion core investment in the college sector during the Government’s first term.

Here is a fact that needs to be borne in mind throughout the debate: the investment that we have made in the sector represents a higher proportion of the Scottish departmental expenditure limit than any Government has invested since devolution. That is a measure of our support for the college sector.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No—I will make progress.

The college sector’s structure has lain largely untouched for many years. Now we have an opportunity and a pressing need for positive reform. The opportunity is to ensure that the sector delivers to every learner in Scotland; the pressing need is financial.

I do not comment on the irony of the Tories lecturing the Scottish Government on cuts, given what they are doing to the Scottish budget. However, they should reflect on the following phrases in a letter to me today from Paul Little, who is the City of Glasgow College’s principal and chief executive officer, because they give the complete lie to the claim about a lack of evidence for finding savings. He reports on the first year of his merger and refers to

“remarkable progress ... a new fit for purpose management structure, harmonised lecturers salaries ... promoting a clear learning and teaching strategy” and

“realising over £4 million a year of financial efficiencies”.

Efficiencies of £4 million a year are being made, but it is alleged that no evidence exists.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Notwithstanding the cabinet secretary’s comment about cuts, why does the college sector—relative to the higher education sector—have to bear the brunt of cuts?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

That is because we are focused on positive reform that builds on the fundamental changes to school education that are under way through curriculum for excellence. That positive reform takes account of our success in developing a sustainable solution for higher education and takes place against a backdrop of continued investment of more than £2 billion between now and 2014. We have made that investment available despite the cut of £3.3 billion in Scotland’s block grant and the decision south of the border to increase tuition fees dramatically.

I do not duck the fact that the unprecedented pressures that we face have meant a tough settlement, particularly for colleges. However, the convener of Scotland’s Colleges, John Spencer, told me on Tuesday that Scotland’s Colleges

“is fully committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government on its reform agenda.”

I congratulate colleges in Scotland on that positive step forward. They have £2 billion of investment to work with, and much can be done.

My priority is to give learners, especially our young learners on whom Scotland’s future depends, a better deal. That is why we will ensure that every 16 to 19-year-old has a place in learning. No Government has made such a commitment before in Scotland. We will also prioritise college places for 20 to 24-year-olds. In addition, we will tackle inefficiencies in the sector, including excessive drop-out rates, and we simply cannot ignore the fact that the number of young people in the core cohort of college learners—the 16 to 24-year-olds—is going to fall over the period of our reforms.

Here, though, is something that we will not do—we will not charge young people for their education. We do not want that and the election showed that Scotland does not want it either. I find it deeply ironic that someone who proposes to abolish the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and establish a new party would want to take their failed electoral baggage with them. The reality is that we will not charge students. Indeed, we will certainly not do what the Tories intend and move that approach into the college sector.

Let me give members a fact: many others in Europe do not want to do so either. Finland, Sweden and Denmark refuse to charge fees and in the past few weeks Hamburg has chosen to abolish fees, which means that only two of Germany’s 16 federal states now charge students. The Scottish Tories are not swimming against the tide of history—they are drowning in it.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Will the cabinet secretary clarify his remark that students will not have to pay fees? Does he not actually mean Scottish students? After all, he has introduced in Scotland the most expensive fees in the whole of the UK.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I have frequently said that I wish that that had not been the case. I wish that the Labour Party had not so enthusiastically backed student fees south of the border and had not voted for them. Now it is proposing to raise fees for Scottish students—even in Scotland, it looks like—to £6,000 a year. I will take no lessons from Labour on fees.

In the time left, I will tell the chamber what we are going to do. To realise our ambitions, we cannot avoid taking a hard look at delivery structures, which must work for learners and employers and must be sustainable. I want regional groupings, greater collaboration and mergers where such a move makes educational and financial sense. In case anyone might be tempted to misinterpret that last point, I will make my position clearer still. I have talked about mergers. We are not and never will be in the business of closures. We have terrific examples of the benefits of college mergers—indeed, I have already mentioned Glasgow—and various rural colleges are getting together. In Edinburgh, Brian Lister, the principal of Stevenson College, has told me how they are positively working with Jewel & Esk College on a merger.

Of course, this is not just happening in Scotland. Members should stop being so isolationist and look around at what is happening. In Northern Ireland, 16 colleges have been reduced to six; in Wales, there are plans to move from 25 to 15; and in England, from 1993 to 2008, there has been a reduction of 72 colleges. Collaborations between colleges and universities are taking place in Scotland, including, for example, between Aberdeen College and Robert Gordon University. The message is clear: mergers of and collaborations between post-16 institutions are far from uncommon and where they benefit learners they should take place by negotiation.

In the past week, I have been contacted by many principals. They told me four things, the first of which is that, unfortunately, they did not approve Scotland’s Colleges first letter. Let that pass. They made three other interesting points. First, they believe that the Government is focusing on the right things: the needs of learners, of employers and of the wider economy. Secondly, notwithstanding the challenges, there is genuine appetite for reform. Thirdly, ambition and leadership are absolutely crucial, as is deeper collaboration between Government and the college sector.

I will let Sue Pinder, principal of James Watt College, speak for them all. She wrote to me, saying:

“I believe that such fundamental and far-reaching change can only successfully come about by joint working between the leaders of the service, the Government and the funding council.”

I agree entirely. I want to help the sector adapt to that change and get it off to a flying start. Why do I want that? I want it for the benefit of Scotland’s learners and Scotland’s economy, which seem to have been forgotten by the Opposition parties.

I move amendment S4M-00955.2, to leave out from first “notes” to end and insert:

“commends the valuable work of the nation’s colleges; welcomes the commitment from Scotland’s Colleges to work constructively with the Scottish Government to deliver learner-centred reform of post-16 education; supports the Opportunities for All programme that will provide a suitable place in learning or training for all 16 to 19-year-olds not already in work or education; notes the value to the people of Scotland of maintaining free access to higher education, and completely rejects the introduction of tuition fees for Scotland-domiciled students.”

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Last week, The Herald contained a disturbing headline, indicating that 1,000 further education jobs have been lost in a year. Although that does not tell the whole story of what is happening in Scotland’s colleges, it gives a little glimpse into what happens when the Scottish National Party cuts 10 per cent from their budget. One thousand jobs have been lost at a time when the country is struggling to get out of recession and when unemployment is at unacceptably high levels; when this Government is supposedly implementing a no compulsory redundancy policy; and in the very area that has most to offer in making our young people more employable. The Scottish Government greeted the news with a decision to cut a further 20 per cent from the colleges’ budget over the next three years.

The impact of last year’s cuts—let alone this year’s cuts—has been felt across the sector by students as well as by those who teach them. Colleges are funded to deliver 21 hours of classroom time per student each week, but the only way in which colleges have been able to keep within their budgets and still keep up their numbers has been by cutting the hours on offer to each student from 21 to 16. Is the cabinet secretary aware that colleges are offering their students less classroom time? If he is, did he approve that decision? If he is not aware of it, what does he intend to do about it? Perhaps he thinks that such a cut will have no effect on the quality of teaching and learning.

The college closure—I am sorry; the college merger—agenda may look good to the SNP on paper, but I am not convinced that it has thought it through. We are not against mergers where they are necessary, but one of the main reasons why colleges offer similar courses in various parts of the country is that the locality matters to many students. It is all very well telling South Lanarkshire College to close its course offering—Margaret McCulloch spoke about that in the chamber last week—and telling students to go to Glasgow instead, but most students cannot afford that round trip and for some that will mean the difference between staying the distance and dropping out before they receive their qualification.

It is not just the students and the communities that they live in that will lose out. The worry is that the vast new impersonal regional groupings could also lose the ability to respond to the local needs and demands of businesses and employers. They could lose the very flexibility that the Scottish Government praised just last year.

There is support for public sector reform—colleges themselves have long embraced reform and the Labour Party has championed and supported reform in and out of office—but the SNP is deliberately confusing and conflating reform with cuts. The new term “positive reform” that Mike Russell has coined appears to be another term for huge cuts.

It is even more worrying that the cabinet secretary appears to be taking a pretty elitist approach to further and higher education. The ancients—the old, established universities—are protected as much as possible and the newer, more accessible red-brick institutions are given thinly veiled threats to merge or else. Liz Smith referred to Lord Sutherland’s reference to “merger by fax” earlier this week. The poor colleges are treated like below-stairs staff. Mr Russell appears to be auditioning for “Downton Abbey”.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I am confused. Mr Macintosh mentioned the “merger by fax” comment, but I understand that, last week, he asked the cabinet secretary to tell us which universities and colleges face merging. If the cabinet secretary did that, he would negate his own consultation process, which does not end until 23 December. What is it to be? Does Mr Macintosh want merger by fax or to buy into the positive consultation that is taking place?

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

That is a pretty convoluted point, but I think that Mr Doris has just admitted that the University of Abertay Dundee will be closed. I think that that was what he was trying to say. Unfortunately, the First Minister certainly would not own up to that.

For the past decade, the Labour Party has been committed not just to expanding, but to improving access to further and higher education. We have worked hard to break down the false divide between academic and vocational options and to build real equity into the Scottish tertiary education system. We have pushed apprenticeships and promoted the skills agenda as being equally worthy of public support as are degrees. I thought that the SNP supported us on that journey, but the decisions and policy announcements that have been made by the Administration over the past few months have rather given the game away. Research funding and a new market in fees for rest of UK students will entrench the position of the older universities while the institutions that are most accessible to their communities will lose another fifth of their funding.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am very interested that Ken Macintosh wants to see more vocational education. I presume that he therefore endorses a point of view that was put forward last week. There was an article on the BBC website entitled “Labour conference: Call to axe half of universities” that said:

“Closing half of Britain’s universities is among the radical ideas being considered by Labour leader Ed Miliband, his policy adviser says.”

It is clear that somebody who wishes to be the leader of Labour in Scotland will endorse that, as Ken Macintosh is clearly doing.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Macintosh, you are now slightly over your time, but I will give you some leeway because of the interventions that you have taken.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

I am delighted that Mike Russell pays such close attention to Labour Party policy and its conference. The SNP has already adopted the sensible Labour Party policy of guaranteeing a place for 16 to 19-year-olds. However, when the SNP adopts our policy, it does not put in place any funding, so all that happens is that older learners are displaced by new ones. What happened to lifelong learning, Mr Russell?

I will end with a quote from a lecturer who is a constituent of my esteemed colleague Johann Lamont MSP. They stated:

“The proposed cuts will ... significantly affect the education and training opportunities in my community where such provision is crucial in these times of economic hardship.

Nicola Sturgeon had the nerve to turn up at Cardonald College on Wednesday morning to open our healthcare training facility and claim positive media coverage from others’ efforts ... in the full knowledge that later that day she would be party to sticking the financial knife into those who were there.”

I ask the SNP Government to think again about its cuts to colleges before they damage the life chances of a whole new generation of Scots.

I move amendment S4M-00955.3, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:

“is concerned that these cuts are being implemented at a time when Scotland is once more experiencing unacceptable levels of unemployment, with youth unemployment in particular having risen by 89% over the last four years, and calls on the Scottish Government to explain how cuts to colleges will improve the life chances for this and succeeding generations.”

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

I welcome the debate, but I am astounded by the claim from the Conservatives and Liz Smith that, in the one week since the spending review announcement, they have discerned that the colleges have already been severely damaged and will have difficulty maintaining student places and staff levels. They cannot be serious. As PJ O’Rourke said, that kind of seriousness is stupidity gone to college.

In the past two months, I have met the principals of colleges in Ayr, Dumfries, Glasgow, East Lothian, West Lothian and Edinburgh. In our discussions, they were clear that the operation, offerings and administration of colleges would have to continue to change. The professionals recognise the current economic situation and realise that, in a progressive country, change is inevitable.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry, but I have only four minutes.

The professionals also recognise that, in a progressive country, change is a constant. As the cabinet secretary mentioned, other principals, such as those at Stevenson College Edinburgh and Jewel & Esk College, recognise that in a progressive country where existing individual colleges provide strong and superb educational training opportunities, they will be even stronger and better by collaborating.

The motion contains echoes from the London Tory Government—their London Tory Government—with the resonance of the policy of tuition fees to secure what in their minds would be better higher education. However, as was pointed out in an intervention, the motion makes no mention of the Tory cuts from London of 25 per cent and the severe damage from that.

Where is the hard evidence that there has been a severe cut in successful partnerships, as the Conservative motion claims? Certainly, our economic performance is better than that down south. The Conservatives always consider revenues—that is always their shibboleth—rather than costs, change and efficiency. The principals are willing to embrace efficiencies and partnerships. They are being consulted on post-16 reforms, not dragged into mergers.

Did the Conservatives sleepwalk through the legislative programme statement last month, in which we reiterated our commitment to young people? Did they read and understand the paper “Putting Learners at the Centre: Delivering our Ambitions for Post-16 Education”, which confirmed our program for 16 to 19-year-olds? That underpins the policy that every 16 to 19-year-old will be guaranteed a learning and training opportunity, which is a top priority for our colleges.

Photo of Chic Brodie Chic Brodie Scottish National Party

No, sorry.

Will the Conservatives accept that the reforms will result in even greater consultation and collaboration to produce greater partnerships that will create better operational structures and a collective of college campuses that will drive Scotland forward? I believe that the colleges will continue to be positive in the consultation and will demonstrate aspiration, ambition and innovation. They will not languish in a pool of negativity. The motion should be reflected on the Tories’ college report card, which should simply read, “Can do better.”

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

When the cabinet secretary reported to us what the principals had been saying, he failed to report what they are saying about the cuts. The truth is that the principals will not have enough money to deliver on the SNP’s manifesto promises. Earlier this year, the SNP promised that there would be no compulsory redundancies in further education. As the cabinet secretary knows, I have raised the issue with him many times, but I would like him to tell us today how he plans to keep that manifesto promise, given the stringent cuts that have been imposed on the colleges in the budget this year and, indeed, last year.

There is another of the SNP Government’s commitments that I would like to know whether the colleges will be able to deliver under the settlement—the commitment to guarantee the number of student places. Perhaps the minister will be able to tell us what the principals are saying about that when he sums up.

Our colleges were expecting a flat-rate settlement. They did not have high expectations, because last year they soaked up a 10.4 per cent cut in their budget, which squeezed staff and courses. They did not have high hopes, but they could not see how they could continue to operate with further cuts to their budget.

This Government has made its choices, but let us not pretend that they were all prescribed by Westminster. Yes, Westminster sent up a reduced budget, but it did not send up a list of choices.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

No, thank you.

The SNP has made its choices in line with its own priorities. Those choices will curtail the choices of many other people; often, they will curtail those of the most vulnerable. The cabinet secretary may laugh, but the issue is about more than the 13 per cent budget cut that many colleges have calculated to mean a 25 per cent real-terms reduction over four years, and which the Educational Institute of Scotland has calculated will amount to a 29 per cent real-terms reduction over four years; it is also about the choices about where the cuts will fall.

The cabinet secretary was kind enough to send the colleges some guidance on the budget cut in an accompanying letter to the college principals. He told them to concentrate on the economically active and on the courses that lead to national qualifications, and to try to maintain other courses. “Try”—that is fine, but in the face of a 25 per cent cut, is it realistic or workable?

What are the courses that do not lead to national qualifications that are likely to go? They are special programmes for young people with particular needs and learning difficulties, who do not have many options at all. The colleges provide a fantastic route for skill development. They give training in life skills, independent living, communications and much else. Some of those students progress to find work; some of them do not. The benefits are innumerable—I know because I met some such students at Dundee College last week—but they are not always quantifiable.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

No, thank you.

Is it fair to cut provision for those students because we cannot quantify the benefits?

What else do the colleges do that does not lead to the national qualifications that the cabinet secretary wants to protect? Colleges provide great education for students who have struggled with the school system. I am talking about hard-to-reach kids and those who have a poor attendance record at school. Many such students progress into qualifications. The colleges set up those courses to respond to local need. They offer the second chance that so many of us need at different points in life, but which children from deprived backgrounds need much more.

The colleges have strong articulation agreements with local universities.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I would be grateful if you would close now.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

Those agreements are often with the post-92 universities. When students are not readily accepted on to courses, the college will back them up and give them the voice and determination that they need to get there.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must close now, please.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

I will just finish.

Yes, cabinet secretary, we must focus resources to get people into work, and the settlement is tough, but the Government has made choices, and these people do not have as many choices—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You are closing now. Thank you very much.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I should declare an interest as someone who was a lecturer in economics at the University of Abertay Dundee and Inverness College UHI before I entered the Parliament. I refer to my declaration of interests.

I find it difficult to think of schools, colleges and universities as separate entities. I use the example of Inverness College, where I lectured at higher national certificate, higher national diploma and degree level before coming to the Parliament. It has more than 400 people taking highers, 250 of whom are full time and more than 150 of whom are part time. Many highers that are needed for entrance to university are not available in schools but can be done online with a monthly get-together at Inverness College. Pupils from 19 schools from all over the Highlands do highers in that way, so cuts to FE also affect school education.

The vocational pathways and skills for work programmes have been up and running at Inverness College for many years. Hundreds of school pupils attend the college for a day every week to try out and receive skills and training in hairdressing, beauty therapy and a range of construction and information technology skills. That, too, is a highly successful partnership with schools to the advantage of pupils.

Inverness College teaches many courses to degree level and has PhD research students in many academic spheres, such as rural, marine and environmental studies and tidal energy. It is one of 13 colleges that is not only an FE college but part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, so when we talk about cuts—or, I should say, positive reforms—to further education in Scotland, we are talking about cuts to school education and university education such as masters degrees and doctorates.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I would be interested in the evidence that Mary Scanlon has for cuts to masters degrees and doctorates. I am unaware of any such evidence, but if she has it and brings it to me I will be interested to see it.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

The evidence is that the cabinet secretary’s positive reforms—also known as cuts—to colleges such as Inverness College and the other 12 colleges in the University of the Highlands and Islands mean cuts to colleges that offer doctorates. If the money is cut there—

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

One intervention is enough. The point is that the Government’s funding plans affect schools, universities, our skills base and our ability to help people to get back to work.

Jenny Marra mentioned unmeasurable benefits. I found that mature students often came to Inverness College with no confidence and no hope of a career but left with something unmeasurable: a touch of confidence and wellbeing. Colleges provide an opportunity for many individuals to empower themselves, gain skills and get themselves back to work. Their biggest success is often the mature students, who missed out at school and find that college brings out their talents and gives them the opportunities that they did not have.

According to a briefing from Scotland’s Colleges, last year colleges turned away 35,000 potential part-time and full-time students because courses were full. That surely highlights the need for more funding and more opportunities. We welcome the Government’s commitment to giving all young people a training or education place but, having turned away 35,000 people last year, how can colleges provide those places with no additional funding—only a significant cut? I ask the cabinet secretary to review that cut. Our colleges will rise to every challenge that the Government sets and are ready to embrace the reform agenda, but they cannot work miracles on a reducing budget.

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

The last major reform of further education was undertaken by the previous UK Tory Government in 1992-93. Our Tory friends in Scotland would like us to forget that era, but the iron lady and her successor have left rusty stains on Scotland’s soul that will not be forgotten until we remove their various legacies. Our Tory friends in Scotland will never be able to rebrand themselves successfully until we remove those legacies, so they should support, and thank us for, the further education reforms.

Mary Scanlon rose—

Photo of Mike MacKenzie Mike MacKenzie Scottish National Party

No, I have only four minutes.

The Tories turned our colleges into businesses competing with each other to replicate courses not in any genuine market, but in one in which the competition was and is for public subsidy. That is not business and it is certainly not the free market that our Tory friends profess to worship.

Education is not and should not be about business. It is one of our higher callings: to discover and nurture the talents of our younger generation. The aims of education are incompatible with the business-centred approach.

Scotland is now under the hammer of another couple of young Tory Turks, overdosing on testosterone and imposing cuts that are too fast and too deep and that run the risk of tipping us back into recession. Under those circumstances, we are forced to seek better value in education as in other areas. With careful pruning, the tree can become stronger. In order to safeguard the precious asset of our young people’s education, we must eliminate replication and competition where it is destructive and replace it with co-operation and collaboration, which is constructive.

I trained a number of apprentices over the years and experienced at first hand the destructive effects of competition in further education when some of our colleges did well and others did not. Our apprentices went to a college in the central belt that did not do well under that system. I remember first-year joinery apprentices occasionally teaching lecturers how to do things. I remember being pressurised by the college to sign off apprentices as competent at tasks when they had not yet achieved competence. I remember the college explaining that if I did not do so, it would not receive its funding. Its concern was about money and not much about education and training.

I therefore welcome the cabinet secretary’s proposals. They are long overdue. I welcome his firm commitment that not one college will close and his commitment to flexibility, so that colleges will be free to collaborate in ways that minimise difficulty. I especially welcome the cabinet secretary’s and First Minister’s commitment that higher education will remain free in Scotland until

“the rocks melt wi’ the sun”.

I have an affectionate message for Liz Smith. I will support that commitment, as will my colleagues on the SNP back benches, to free higher education in Scotland,

“Till a’ the seas gang dry, my Dear.”

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I welcome the debate and congratulate Liz Smith on her motion even if I do not support it.

The debate is timely as, facing the prospect of swingeing budget cuts and the imposition of wholesale mergers, our colleges feel as if they are under siege. In the current political climate, when many organisations find it difficult, if not impossible, to voice publicly their concerns about what this majority Government is doing, it is striking that Scottish college leaders have felt moved to be so outspoken. In their open letter to the education secretary, John Spencer and Graham Johnstone pulled no punches at all. They talked of a “bleak” future for Scotland’s college sector, adding:

“The impact on the quality of provision, the availability of student support services, and the loss to expertise, capacity and morale present in the sector through losing staff cannot be overstated.”

On the process of top-down merger, as the cabinet secretary said, Mr Spencer is on record as saying

“we will embrace reform that can benefit learners”, but he goes on to say:

“reform should not come at the expense of the quality or breadth of provision for college students.”

That is a strong, unambiguous message and we should all heed it, but we would do well to detect any level of concern from reading the Government’s amendment this morning. So although I support many of the sentiments in Mr Russell’s text, it would be wholly inappropriate for the Parliament to do anything other than acknowledge the deep disquiet in Scotland’s college sector. That is why, in the absence of my own amendment, I urge members to support the amendment in the name of Ken Macintosh.

As all have recognised in the debate, our colleges make an invaluable contribution, not least in delivering opportunities for genuine lifelong learning, yet there has been a smash-and-grab raid on their budget. The 20 per cent positive reforms that are to take place over the next three years follow the 10 per cent positive reforms of last year.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

No. I have only four minutes.

College leaders have confirmed that the SNP’s pledge to retain student numbers at colleges over the lifetime of this Parliament cannot be delivered. Delivery of Mr Russell’s commitment on 16 to 19-year-olds will be “seriously compromised” and compulsory redundancies, as Jenny Marra pointed out, cannot be ruled out.

Add to that a merger process about which witnesses to the Education and Culture Committee earlier this week expressed grave concerns and we have a potentially toxic medicine. Mark Batho conceded that the cost of mergers could be significant in the initial years, when budgets are tightest. Indeed, other witnesses testified that no allowance had been made for those costs in HE, far less FE, allocations.

Meanwhile, Lord Sutherland was outspoken in his criticism, not of mergers per se—

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Sit down. The member took no interventions.

Lord Sutherland rightly said that mergers can deliver considerable benefits, but was critical of the way in which ministers are going about it. The process is not being institution-led or academically driven and Lord Sutherland was in no doubt that what the University of Abertay Dundee and the University of Dundee were being put through would send a chill down the spines of universities and colleges across Scotland that are fearful for their futures.

Ministers will seek to blame everyone else for this state of affairs. The truth, though, is that it is the result of political choices that the Government has made. Alternative options were and are still available. I do not support Liz Smith’s proposition but, by clinging doggedly to some of their costly promises while ruling out even looking at other possible savings, ministers have made the bed in which colleges are being forced to lie.

Let me cite one example. Ministers have set their face against any consideration of ways in which significant savings could be made through moving Scottish Water to a public trust. Such a move could release savings to the Scottish budget of around £1.5 billion, money that would make a real difference to our colleges as well as enabling a concerted effort to be made on early years and a range of other worthwhile initiatives.

Other examples exist, but that will do to illustrate the dire situation facing our colleges and, by extension, learners, staff and, indeed, the local communities in which the institutions are based, which is the result of political choices made by the majority SNP Government.

I welcome the debate, but question whether the subject might not have presented a more appropriate use of the Parliament’s debating time this afternoon, rather than being shoe-horned into an Opposition slot. Ministers may wish to reflect on the message that that sends to a vital sector that is desperately looking for signs from the SNP Government that it is valued and not simply the politically expendable part of the learner journey.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I seek your guidance on what opportunities or avenues are open to members to correct a member’s misrepresentation of evidence to a parliamentary committee. It is quite clear that Liam McArthur’s statement is not an accurate representation of the evidence that was supplied to the Education and Culture Committee on Tuesday morning.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order; it is a matter for the member. Nonetheless, you have your point on the record.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I share the sentiments that Liz Smith expressed and I concur with her view that Scotland’s colleges have an outstanding record. It is, therefore, not to put too fine a point on it, a disaster that they are being asked to bear the brunt of spending cuts. I regret that she allowed the focus of the debate to shift away from Scotland’s colleges and on to issues that can be addressed at other times. The debate should focus on the contribution that Scotland’s colleges can make to education in Scotland.

Their contribution is more flexible and more effective in many regards than that of any other institutions in this country. In my area in Renfrewshire, I see Reid Kerr College’s contribution to communities such as Barrhead, Neilston, Johnstone and Linwood and to many young people who would otherwise be alienated and disengaged from the education process. The colleges are a lifeline for such young people and they provide imagination and innovation.

I accept what Mike Russell said about college principals being up for reform; nevertheless it was incumbent upon him to articulate the concerns that Liam McArthur and others indicated that the colleges have. As Jenny Marra said, colleges committed last year to avoid compulsory redundancies and maintain the same level of activity. However, they are clearly saying that that cannot be repeated this year if they must absorb further cuts to their core funding.

We know the social improvements that good colleges can make. It is not just about education. For example, in the east end of Glasgow we have seen an 84 per cent reduction in criminality and youth disorder over the past three years, which is a result of joint efforts by the local authority, the police and colleges, such as John Wheatley College, which manage to give many young people a positive aspect to their life.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

No, thank you.

Are we prepared to pay for the other costs that will come when young people are denied opportunities at colleges?

Liam McArthur is right to say that it is a shame that this subject has been shoe-horned into a short Opposition debate, because there are issues that are worthy of further exploration. I agree with some of what the cabinet secretary said about having to think outside the box.

We must ask ourselves why it is that in places such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and, I think, Aberdeen, we probably have more universities than colleges. Why do we not start to look at a model that goes back to the old polytechnics? In Glasgow, Forth Valley, Dundee, Fife and Aberdeen, such polytechnics could build on the good work that the colleges are doing in relation to HNCs and HNDs and provide a more effective, efficient and cost-effective way of delivering degrees. Why is it that some of the elitist institutions that Ken Macintosh mentioned are refusing to accept the HNDs and HNCs as progression towards degrees? I say to the cabinet secretary that he should use his influence to challenge that elitism and that attitude, which is fundamentally wasting money in this country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You must close now, please.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

Finally, we should challenge whether we need four-year degrees. We should look at the contribution that sandwich courses make. Above all, we should not underestimate the contribution that Scotland’s colleges can make to the wellbeing of this country.

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

We have now heard it said twice that the ancient institutions—the ancient universities—in this country are elitist organisations. As an alumnus of the University of Glasgow, I have to say that this is the first time that I have ever been accused of being part of any elite, so I thank the Labour Party for that news.

I welcome the debate. I thank the Conservatives for their choice of subject matter, but I disagree with the terms of their motion for two reasons. First, it totally and utterly fails to acknowledge the budgetary circumstances of the time. It is quite clear that the Scottish Government has been passed a very challenging budget settlement from Westminster and it is trying to do the best that it can with it. I heard the groans from the Tory members when the cabinet secretary made that point, but their groans cannot mask the fact that the cuts that the Scottish Government is facing are a consequence of decisions being taken by their party at Westminster. It was interesting to hear Mary Scanlon say that colleges cannot work miracles with cuts; I wonder whether she will follow that statement through to its logical conclusion.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does the member agree that it is up to the Scottish Government to decide the spending levels in HE and FE?

Photo of Jamie Hepburn Jamie Hepburn Scottish National Party

I was just about to come to that point—I hear the Labour Party members applauding. Others have said that this is a matter of choice. Of course there is still choice to be exercised by the Scottish Government—I absolutely accept that. However, what we have not heard in any of the debates about public spending by the Scottish Government is the choice that other parties would exercise. What areas of the budget would they seek to cut? From which other areas of the budget would they lever funds to give to areas such as further education?

The second reason why I disagree with the Tory motion is that it raises once more the spectre of tuition fees. The motion refers to a

“consequence of the Scottish Government’s refusal to allow additional private sources of finance in the higher education sector”.

That is quite clearly a reference to tuition fees, so we know that the Conservatives still want to see the imposition of tuition fees here in Scotland. It is not just me who believes that; the National Union of Students said:

“We fully reject the Scottish Conservatives’ motion which once again calls for, in effect, tuition fees”.

I would like the Scottish Conservatives to let go of the idea that we need tuition fees in higher education. It is clear that members on these benches—and I hope others, although we have heard in recent days that the Labour Party seems to support tuition fees of £6,000 in England—believe that education should be based on the ability to succeed and learn and not on the ability to pay.

We are seeing that commitment in further education as well as in higher education. The education maintenance allowance has been protected, despite the attacks on it south of the border. That clearly benefits further education students because a significant proportion of those who are in receipt of the EMA are further education students. Again, we have seen the NUS welcome that decision.

I had hoped to go more into the background of the sector and the debate more generally, but I must close by referring to Cumbernauld College, which is the only tertiary education institution in my constituency. I thank the Minister for Learning and Skills for visiting the college with me on Tuesday, and I am sure that he agrees that, although it is one of the smaller colleges, it is an excellent institution with good reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education. The college told us that there are challenges ahead for tertiary education and the further education sector, but they are challenges that the colleges are embracing. The colleges want to ensure that the sector moves forward strongly in the future.

I close with one last reference. I know that there are plans to regionalise the structure of colleges, and I imagine that there is a temptation to use local authority boundaries as the logical way to do that. I hope that that can be revisited. The constituency of Cumbernauld and Kilsyth does not sit easily or readily in the North Lanarkshire area for a number of reasons—historical, cultural and linked to public transport. I hope that that will be considered, and I will take it up in future with the cabinet secretary.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

I thank the Conservatives for using their parliamentary time to debate the issue of colleges. The Government’s debate on Scottish studies this afternoon is certainly valuable, but it is unfortunate that this morning’s debate has to be so brief, because it is clear that college cuts are of key concern to many members and their local colleges.

In last week’s debate on the spending review, I gave my initial reaction to the cuts. As Jenny Marra outlined, a flat-cash deal was the best that colleges could hope for from this year’s budget, and they were prepared to absorb the inflation increases. However, the 13.5 per cent cut in cash terms—at least 20 per cent in real terms—over the spending review period has left the sector alarmed and very concerned. It is not uncommon to hear language such as “shell shocked” from principals. Indeed, Scotland’s Colleges said that the spending review presented a “bleak future” for the college sector.

We all know the challenges that the Government faced in the spending review. Whoever was in government was going to face tough decisions. As Liam McArthur said, however, it is a choice of the Government to make such a deep cut. It is difficult to accept such a cut to a sector that plays such a critical role in growing our economy and tackling unemployment.

We are facing a crisis of youth unemployment. I acknowledge the Government’s commitment to 16 to 19-year-olds—indeed, it was Labour policy—but there is a concern that, although the Government may deliver on that pledge, the positive reform that it is undertaking means the closing of opportunities for many people outwith that group. As Jenny Marra described, there is a danger of some important non-accredited courses being hit as well as the quality of teaching being threatened.

In difficult economic times, colleges have been quick to react. They have worked hard to turn no one away, and they have moved to provide options for those facing redundancy as well as school leavers. They are making it clear that that level of activity will be impossible to maintain with the planned cuts.

As well as delivering high-quality skills and excellence, colleges play a vital role in extending opportunity to communities that can be difficult to reach. We know that more than 30 per cent of college students come from the most deprived areas of Scotland and Hugh Henry spoke about the vital social value of colleges in our communities. Slashing budgets by more than 20 per cent over the three-year period will jeopardise colleges’ ability to deliver for their communities.

Photo of Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

No, thank you. I have only four minutes.

To make matters worse, half of the funding cuts will fall in the first year, compounding the problems created for the sector by last year’s 10 per cent cut.

Last year’s cut was a difficult one to absorb. Mary Scanlon raised concerns about the future of school partnerships, and the cut also resulted in a reduction in courses, student-teacher contact time, and student guidance and counselling services—the very services that many of our more vulnerable students need.

We know that redundancies in the sector have been significant. More than 1,000 jobs have been cut in the past year—a 7 per cent decline in the sector, which is more than any other area of the public sector. Colleges have questioned their ability to avoid compulsory redundancies with the new settlement.

Last year, though, colleges accepted the 10 per cent cut, while promising to maintain places and, in many cases, increase places in response to the local unemployment challenges. However, they made it clear that that kind of cut was unsustainable in the long term. They have made it clear that their ability to meet the Government’s places pledge is seriously compromised by the budget proposals. The big money-saving idea is mergers, but it is clear that, in the short term, mergers will not deliver the level of efficiencies needed to meet the funding gap that the cuts create.

Last week’s open letter from Scotland’s Colleges was pretty direct in its concerns and its criticism of the spending review. Although its statement this week states that it will work on a reform agenda, that does not negate the financial alarm bells that it rang last week. Colleges have always been a reforming sector, open to change in the best interests of their learners, so I do not doubt that they will work constructively with the Government on reform. However, to drive through this level of reform while drastically reducing budgets gives rise to a serious danger of compromising colleges’ ability to deliver for Scotland’s communities.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I start with something that the whole chamber agrees on, which is rather hard to find these days, although I always try to be positive. We all agree that a high-performing education and skills system is vital to creating the type of Scotland that we want. It is vital to building our workforce, improving individual life chances and maintaining our competitiveness at home and abroad. Those are the very reasons why reform is more important than ever and they are a test against which the success of a reform programme has to be judged. Not only is that the right thing to do; this is the right time to be doing it. That is not just my belief—interestingly, it is the belief of many in the college sector, who agree that it is time to make those changes and acknowledge that, although the financial difficulties are severe, they can be coped with.

I quote another letter I have had this week, from Russel Griggs, the chair of the board of management at Dumfries and Galloway College:

“there is an understandable concern that the scale of funding cuts ... coupled with the potential timetable for change ... could ... impact on learners and communities unless this is achieved through effective joint working between the sector, the government and the Scottish Funding Council.”

That is precisely what I am committed to, and it is being done jointly and with substantial resource.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I want to make some progress. I have a word or two for Mr Henry in just a moment.

I made the point in my opening speech that we have spent £2.6 billion in our first term in government. In the next three years, we will invest £2 billion. There is substantial resource to take this forward. A substantial investment is important in a sector that is good but can be better. No Opposition member has even tried to refute the fact that the savings in the City of Glasgow College in the first year of the merger have been £4 million. That shows that it can be done. According to the college’s principal, the service is better than ever.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I want to sum up and I have only a few minutes.

The problem with the debate is that it has been characterised by assertion, assumption and error from the Opposition, with a liberal dose of scaremongering. Mary Scanlon asserted that there was damage to masters degrees and doctorates. There is no evidence of that. She said that the colleges had turned away a certain number of potential students, but she did not say that those figures include multiple applications, so the figure is totally erroneous.

Jenny Marra talked about protecting access courses. Those courses are specifically protected under the instructions that I have given to the funding council.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry—I am going to finish my point. There has been far too much misleading information. In addition to that, colleges are not the only provider for deprived young people. For example, the Skills Development Scotland get ready for work programme, the activity agreement roll-out, the community learning and development fund and the Inspiring Scotland 14:19 fund all exist and are all making a difference.

Ken Macintosh called on me to direct colleges to do certain things but did not tell Parliament that the power of direction for the minister was removed by one Allan Wilson when he was Labour minister for colleges. Ken Macintosh was asking me to do something that he should have known was impossible.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

David McLetchie suggests that we bring back Allan Wilson. It is possible, given the Labour leadership contest. Of course, Mr Macintosh has had a difficult day because, when Ed Miliband was asked to name the potential leaders of Scottish Labour this morning, he got Harris and Lamont but forgot Mr Macintosh. It has been a hard day for him. To add to that disappointment, there was a fatal flaw in the argument from the member sitting behind him. Despite Mr Henry’s penchant for hyperbole in describing the disasters that he talked about, there was just a hint that, as a former education minister, he realised that progress needs to be made on this agenda—that there needs to be rationalisation and an agenda that delivers better.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I am not going to give way, as I have much ground to cover.

Liz Smith keeps arguing for fees. In June 2007, Professor Tim O’Shea, the acting convener of Universities Scotland, said:

“can I reaffirm Universities Scotland’s entire acceptance that in the post-election environment any further discussion of graduate contribution options is irrelevant.”

I am afraid that that defines Liz Smith’s position: she is making an irrelevant point and proposing an irrelevant policy that has damaged her own party and will damage whatever new party is brought into existence. Two Conservative parties, both with disastrous policies—surely they have learned something.

The lesson of today’s debate is even more interesting. We have seen the reality of modern Scotland. The SNP has been arguing for positive, constructive reform, but what we have heard from the Tories, Labour and the Liberals is an opposition to reform. That is the true definition of conservatism, so they are all conservatives now—all unionists are conservatives. The Tories scoff at the very idea of reform and Labour laughs with them, while the Tory and Liberal parties slash the funding for Scotland. Mr McArthur asked for an idea for change. I will give him an idea—independence, when Scotland’s resources can be applied to the issues that concern Scotland.

The lesson today is this: let us be straightforward and look at the evidence. Let us consider the example of what took place in Glasgow. Let us consider the needs of learners and how we can take Scottish education forward for learners. Then we will embrace with enthusiasm a reform agenda that the Conservatives and the unionists still reject.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

Aneurin Bevan said that

“The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism”, but the choice of priorities is a feature of any political ideology or party of government because, as we all know, resources are not infinite and choices must be made. One of the tasks of Opposition parties is to make explicit the priorities that have been adopted by the governing party and the consequences of the decisions that it has made. I agree with Jamie Hepburn that some Opposition parties, while keen to criticise the Government, are far from enthusiastic about making their own priorities and choices clear, but that is not a charge that can be laid at the door of the Scottish Conservatives, with our fully costed programme. Nonetheless, it is the Government’s programme, which is in the course of implementation, that we must address first and foremost.

It is interesting to reflect on the changing SNP priorities in education. Some of us still remember—even if most SNP members would love to forget—that the educational priority back in 2007 was the reduction of class sizes to a maximum of 18 in primary 1 to 3. Michael Russell, the architect of that policy, confidently proclaimed that it could be achieved within five years. Like many of Mr Russell’s extravagant assertions, that was manifest nonsense. However, it fell not to him but to the hapless Fiona Hyslop to try to implement the policy. Not surprisingly, she failed to do so and, in an ironic and cruel twist of fate, the beneficiary of her dismissal was the same Michael Russell who dreamed up the daft idea in the first place.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

As ever, I thank the member for his kindness towards me. Mr McLetchie and I are old friends. I remind him that his own record of prediction and assertion is not unblemished. In 1999, when he was Conservative leader, he stated:

“we’re determined to abolish tuition fees for Scots students going on to university.”

Ha, ha—“we’re determined”.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

We were absolutely determined to do that, at that particular time and in the circumstances before the financial disaster and crisis that was visited upon this country by a Labour Government—a financial disaster and crisis of which the SNP Government failed to take proper cognisance.

We all know that the class size policy has been indecently interred and abandoned. Instead, the overriding policy and priority is to maintain free higher education in Scotland for Scots, and for the French, the Germans, the Poles, the Swedes, the Lithuanians, the Italians, the Spaniards, and the Portuguese—not to mention the Greeks, the poor souls—at any cost, which of course is why some university principals went into raptures last week when the budget was announced.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

No, thank you.

What is the cost of allocating the education budget in such a manner, as a deliberate act of SNP policy and priority? As Jenny Marra and Liam McArthur rightly reminded us, the choice is the SNP’s and the SNP’s alone, because it knew perfectly well before the recent Scottish Parliament election and the budget announcement exactly how much money it would have at its disposal over the spending review period.

Scotland’s colleges are the SNP’s whipping boys for Scotland’s universities. Last year, the colleges budget was cut by more than 10 per cent, which resulted in a reduction in staff of 1,000—how much harder evidence than that does Mr Brodie need? It also resulted in a reduction in the number of learners and a cut in school-college partnership programmes. As we heard, during the three-year spending review period, the sector will experience cuts of a further 13 per cent, totalling some £74 million, with the bulk of the reduction coming next year.

Often overlooked in the debate about higher education is the fact that colleges delivered 20 per cent of higher education provision in Scotland last year. The upshot of the SNP’s approach is that we have financial protection for the providers of 80 per cent of our higher education, that is, universities, but budgets are slashed for the providers of the rest of our higher education programme, that is, the colleges.

In politics, we are all used to people crying wolf. It happens every time a grant is reduced. All manner of dire consequences are claimed as inevitable. However, the letter to Mr Russell from Scotland’s Colleges made clear that the Government is not only cutting budgets substantially in absolute and real terms but, at the same time, demanding that colleges do more to help with training opportunities for 16 to 19-year-olds and demanding improvements in retention, support services and course content. It is breathtaking that a sector that had to reduce staff numbers by 1,000 to cope with the previous round of cuts is piously demanded by the bold Mr Russell to avoid compulsory redundancies. That is yet another superficial SNP policy that makes for a good soundbite and a good headline but does not make good sense when employers’ budgets are being slashed—some people would say that that is the height of hypocrisy.

Something has to give, and the casualties will be the prospective students who fail to gain college places and the staff who used to teach the courses that are no longer offered. In the letter of 22 September from Scotland’s Colleges to Mr Russell, which was written by Mr John Spencer, whom Mr Russell was keen to quote when it suited his purposes, the position was made clear. Mr Spencer wrote:

The SNP’s manifesto commitment to retain student numbers at colleges over the lifetime of this Parliament ... cannot be delivered in this proposed Budget.”

The rocks will be melting in the sun on that one.

The debate is not just about core funding levels and priorities. It is about accountability, the structure of the sector, the forced merger process that is being decreed by Mr Russell from the centre and Mr Russell’s dictatorial approach to the governance of Scotland’s colleges—a sector that has flourished since the Conservatives cut it loose from the dead hand of council control and gave it a mandate, in partnership with schools and businesses, to meet local training and education needs. It is ironic that the party that likes to talk about independence is less keen on the concept when it means independence from interference by an SNP Government.

Scotland’s colleges are accountable to the funding council and to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government, but most of all they are accountable to their students for the quality of education and training that they deliver. They have been passing that test of accountability with flying colours ever since 1993.

Different parties have different perspectives on the debate, as is clear from the motion and amendments. No doubt the Government will prevail at decision time. However, the fact is that the SNP Government is short-changing Scotland’s colleges and generating a host of problems for itself over the next five years. Back-bench SNP members throughout the country will come to rue the day when their Government’s lop-sided priorities were determined.