Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th March 2013.

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Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-06059, in the name of Michael Russell, on the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

I remind all members that time was already extremely tight and that we have now lost 10 minutes of the debate. That means that later speakers will get their time cut. I implore everybody to keep to the time limit that they are given. The cabinet secretary has 14 minutes.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am delighted to open this debate on the principles of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the development of the bill so far. In particular, I thank the members of Education and Culture Committee for their detailed scrutiny and comprehensive stage 1 report, which I welcome and which we are happy to respond to. I want to go on working with the committee, of course, as we continue to develop and improve the bill.

Most of all, I want to thank all the staff, students, colleges, universities, employers and others who have given their views not just during the committee’s evidence gathering, but through the numerous consultations and reviews that have informed and shaped the bill.

The Government’s record shows our undoubted commitment to education and delivering better opportunities and outcomes for learners. We have ensured that learners can benefit from a world-class education without the fear of tuition fees, and we have maintained student places in our colleges while promoting full-time, job-focused learning. We have delivered record funding for our universities and introduced the most comprehensive student support package currently available in the United Kingdom. We have delivered a record 25,000 modern apprenticeships and, through opportunities for all, we have acted to prevent the scarring effects of long-term youth unemployment, in which there has been a drop of 34,000 in the past year—the largest annual fall on record. Those achievements are good, especially as they have been delivered during the worst economic climate in living memory, but they do not represent the limit of our ambitions for Scottish education.

I believe that our reforms of the post-16 education system will deliver enormous benefits for learners and for Scotland. As the legislative arm of post-16 reform, that is precisely what the bill sets out to achieve.

Let me open up the ideas in the bill.

The bill reflects our strong belief that access to higher education should be extended to all, especially those in our most deprived communities.

Photo of Duncan McNeil Duncan McNeil Labour

You rightly say that the objective of the reform is to widen access to education for people in deprived areas, for example, and vulnerable people with learning difficulties. A thousand learners are in James Watt College for precisely that reason. How will we ensure that the bill will ensure the best outcomes for people with learning disabilities? How will it ensure that they are not pushed out of our colleges as an unintended consequence?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The process of regionalisation will be part of the process of widening the offer. I am glad that the member has raised that issue, because last week, I met the cross-party group on learning disability. I am sure that it would have welcomed you—the member—too. We discussed—and I have discussed this with the charities involved—additional investment that we can put in place to ensure that there are no unintended consequences. I have recently approved two schemes that will attempt to guarantee that, and I will go on attempting to guarantee that with those involved.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Today, I received an email from Unison, which has done a quick survey around the City of Glasgow College and identified almost three pages of courses that have been cut. The courses, which ran last year but are not running this year, are: the higher national certificate in engineering; courses in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, sports science and sports coaching; the European computer driving licence; and additional needs courses. The list goes on and on. How does that widen access?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am not really surprised that Mr Findlay is behind Ruth Davidson in raising those points. She raised them some months ago but, unfortunately, she has not come to the chamber to withdraw them as she should have done, given that she discovered that some of those courses had not been withdrawn and that others were available in nearby colleges. [Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The process of regionalisation is providing wider opportunities across the college sector and across Glasgow. It is doing precisely that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I take your point about various aspects of the issue and that we have to weigh up other things in the balance. Could you be specific? College regionalisation is on-going in any case. What specifically in the bill will widen access?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

There is a guarantee of widening access to higher education in the outcome agreements, and the regionalisation process will ensure better offers for every student. I would have thought that that was axiomatic.

I will continue to outline those points as I go through the bill.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I thank the minister for giving way—he is taking a great number of interventions. Perhaps he should be absolutely bare-faced and honest: we will widen access to education when we have fewer poorer people. Perhaps the ball should start not in the court of people who are looking for education but in the court of those who are looking for jobs.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Members should use members’ full names.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Margo MacDonald is, as ever, wise, but the bill is about opening the door and creating the opportunity. Of course, moving people away from poverty in Scotland is important, and she and I agree exactly on how to do that, which is to have independence in Scotland.

The bill reflects our strong belief that access to higher education should be extended to all, especially those in our most deprived communities. The bill will end once and for all the perception in those communities that a top-class education is an opportunity that is designed for others. The distinguished Toronto educator, Avis Glaze, says that “poverty is not destiny”. The bill will make yet clearer that in Scotland, post-16 education is for everyone with the ability, drive and ambition to pursue it.

The bill will allow us to ensure that Skills Development Scotland has the information that it needs to identify young people who are at risk of dropping out of education. It will allow us to cap tuition fees for students from the rest of the United Kingdom and impose a related condition of grant on the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, which will ensure that such students are not charged more than they can access in fee support from their own administrations. We abhor the monetisation of higher education that has been set in train by the UK Government; unfortunately, that is the reality, and this Parliament has had no alternative but to take action.

The bill will substantially improve the governance of both college and university sectors. That is right and proper, and it is commensurate with the assurance and accountability required for public investment of £1.6 billion each year.

The bill will establish the structures that are necessary to deliver the full benefits of college regionalisation. As many commentators have observed, a regional system of planning and delivery will allow a much sharper alignment of provision and economic need, which will boost the employability of learners and deliver the skills that are necessary to drive forward the Scottish economy. Finally, the bill will give the SFC an explicit power to initiate a formal review of Scotland’s post-16 educational offer, to ensure that it effectively meets the needs of learners and the economy.

I am pleased to say that the evidence presented to the committee has revealed strong support for those principles, which is in stark contrast to the impression created by some Opposition members last week. The clear message that I hear from learners, staff and institutions is that the policy objectives that we have identified are the right ones.

To take just one example, on widening access, Robin Parker of National Union of Students Scotland clearly told the committee: “The legislation must happen.” However, that should come as no surprise, because we did not arrive at the bill’s principles on our own.

In the early autumn of 2011, we embarked on a process of detailed consultation and engagement. We published “Putting Learners at the Centre” in September that year. With the funding council, we consulted on detailed proposals for college regionalisation in November. Professor von Prondzynski and Professor Griggs consulted widely during their respective, independent, reviews of university and college governance. All that has led to a constructive process full of challenge, discussion and debate, to which we have listened carefully. We have taken that on board and have made improvements, and we will go on listening and looking at those ideas and influences as we progress with the bill.

However, I do not claim that there is consensus on the detail of every provision—it would be surprising if there was. Throughout the process, I have been clear that I welcome constructive challenge, and I will go on doing so because my priority is to work with staff, students and institutions—and this Parliament—to produce the best possible bill: one that maximises benefits for learners and for Scotland.

Today we are talking about the bill’s general principles—that is our focus. Looking ahead, I encourage all members, whether they are on the Education and Culture Committee or not, to come forward with suggestions that can help us to achieve a better bill.

I turn to some of the issues that were highlighted in the committee’s report. I noted with interest the differences that emerged. For example, some of the concerns over the provisions relating to college regionalisation are founded in perceptions of complexity. However, there is broad acceptance that a regional model of planning and delivery will achieve substantial benefits for learners, institutions and employers.

It has been suggested that, in allowing for both single and multicollege regions, we are creating an overly complex system. However, the bill allows for those different structures because we want colleges to determine the best model for learners in their region. Ian McKay, a former college lecturer and trade union official who is now regional lead for Edinburgh, put it well in his evidence to the committee when he said:

“In a place as diverse as Scotland, it will be necessary to have a degree of variance in the way in which we exercise control over a national structure. It makes sense that there should be such variance.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 2026.]

An alternative approach would have meant forcing colleges to merge. We are not going to do that. Those who criticise our plans for regionalisation cannot at the same time oppose the flexibility that the bill allows.

Opposition parties have united to call for a delay to the bill, but at every stage we have answered the questions put and have addressed the issues raised, and we will go on doing so. Delaying the bill would be the wrong thing to do because college leaders are already seizing opportunities for post-16 reforms and are delivering the benefits of those reforms at an unprecedented pace.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I am very short of time. Perhaps I will do so in a moment.

It is college leaders who, right across the country, are presiding over the emergence of colleges of scale and distinction. I do not think that delay would serve any purpose at all. I have made clear my intention to listen to any concerns that are raised and to address those at stage 2. Colleges themselves have set timetables for change, and I will back their efforts for learners as strongly as I can.

I will also back the development of wider collaborative models. Let me make clear my support for the work that continues between the local authorities and higher education bodies in the unique venture at the Crichton campus in Dumfries. I am looking to the funding council and the institutions involved to ensure that that model and others are recognised in outcome agreements.

Widening access is another principle for which there is strong support. Let us discuss how we can get that principle into action. In 1894, John Caird, the then principal of the University of Glasgow, said:

“It is the glory of our Scottish universities that they have never been places of education for a class, that no costly arrangements render them possible for only the rich or well to do.”

However, 119 years after that remark was delivered, we still have not adequately widened access to our poorest communities—a point that Duncan McNeil just made. Almost everyone in the chamber would agree that widening access is intrinsically good. The question is not whether something should be done, but how best to do it—and, in particular, whether it is necessary to legislate. I believe that the evidence shows that we must.

I do not dispute that progress has been made. I applaud the innovative programmes that are being developed. However, there is no getting away from the fact that participation from Scotland’s most deprived areas has increased by just 1 per cent in the past nine years. That is unacceptable. We invest more than £1 billion a year in Scottish universities, and that investment must yield a return for all young Scots who have the ambition and determination to succeed, whatever their background or circumstances.

That does not mean that there should be any displacement. We do not want to increase access for one group of learners by restricting opportunities for another. By opening access in the truest sense, we have already created an additional 1,700 places in anticipation of an increase in the number of learners from deprived backgrounds. That is why we provide the Scottish funding council with £29 million every year for those activities.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No. I am sorry, but I am coming to the end of my opening speech. I will genuinely try to take an intervention later in the debate.

I turn to the issues that were raised by the committee with regard to governance. The bill will allow ministers to require institutions to comply with principles of governance that appear to constitute good practice. A code is being developed by the chairs of court, who have been consulting. It is appropriate that the committee has a role in scrutinising that code, and I am pleased that there is going to be further evidence on it. Nevertheless, the code is not explicitly referenced in the bill and is not, therefore, a substantive part of the legislation that is under scrutiny. The scrutiny that will take place will be necessary, but it has not impeded the progress of the bill.

I have set out the principles of the bill and the benefits that I believe it will deliver for Scotland. It has been suggested by some in the chamber that none of this is necessary and that, although our intentions are laudable, legislation is not necessary or essential for their achievement. However, the bill is necessary and essential. It is necessary and essential for the Scottish businesses that are looking for the skills that they need to grow. It is necessary and essential for the ambitious learners who want to acquire the skills to enter quality employment. Above all, it is necessary and essential for the young people in our deprived communities who dream of a better life.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I thank the cabinet secretary for addressing in his speech many of the issues raised in the Education and Culture Committee’s stage 1 report on the bill and for his quick response—in time for the debate—to the report. I also thank those who provided evidence to the committee, the clerks, and the Scottish Parliament information centre, which provided assistance throughout the stage 1 process.

I make it clear that I am in speaking in my capacity as committee convener, which provides me with an opportunity to discuss the main issues in our report in more detail. I will also look ahead to stage 2—assuming that the bill passes stage 1.

The committee’s report sets out various areas where further information is required before we will be in a position to consider amendments. The report notes the broad and strong support for the general policy direction; it also raises a number of questions about some of the specific approaches that are being adopted.

I should say at this point that the committee was split on whether to support the bill’s general principles. The majority of members supported those, whereas others expressed concern about whether the legislation would achieve them. All members noted some concern about the specific means by which the bill would achieve some of the general principles. I will address some of those concerns and questions as I go through our views on the bill, provision by provision.

I doubt that any member is unaware of the educational, cultural and economic importance of Scotland’s higher education institutions. Our universities punch well above their weight internationally, and I believe that no Government—or party—would seek to jeopardise their world-class reputation. Although university reform should therefore be conducted with caution, the Parliament should not run the risk of being overly timid in its approach. Higher education institutions spend considerable amounts of public money, and we rightly expect to derive a public benefit in return.

A major aim of the bill is to improve university governance. The trade unions that provided evidence forcefully made the case for that, citing universities’ weakness in relation to scrutiny, transparency and widening access as reasons for reform.

The Scottish Government’s response to those perceived weaknesses is set out in section 2 of the bill. Essentially, higher education institutions are

“to comply with any principles of governance or management” identified by Scottish Ministers.

It is fair to say that university principals and chairs are worried that the provisions on governance may give too much power to Scottish ministers and jeopardise their institutions’ responsible autonomy. In other words, they expressed the belief that universities can best deliver public benefit when they have clear autonomy to do so. In our report, we have asked the cabinet secretary to explain whether those concerns should be addressed by amending the bill at stage 2.

While we were scrutinising the bill at stage 1, a steering group was developing a new Scottish code of good higher education governance. We understand that the code—which is due to be published in April—will become the “principles of governance” referred to in the bill.

The committee had a number of questions about the code, and in our report we have asked the cabinet secretary to explain how it will be signed off, whether it will address the issue of gender inequality on university governing bodies, and how it will avoid straying into the management, as opposed to the governance, of universities. Given that the code was not available before the end of stage 1, the committee will take further evidence on the content of the code before commencing stage 2.

I hope that everyone present agrees that our universities should be places where all those with the ability to flourish are admitted. However, it is strikingly apparent from the evidence that we heard that some groups of people, particularly those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, are not as well represented in university as others. The bill seeks to address that deficit.

The committee welcomed the principle of widening access and the cabinet secretary’s recent financial commitment to that policy. However, we have asked for further information from the Scottish Government.

First, we want to know how the risk that universities will adopt weak access targets can be avoided. We do not want—or anticipate—such an outcome but, to put it charitably, progress on widening access could perhaps have been a little quicker over the years. As the cabinet secretary acknowledged, universities will maintain autonomy in determining admissions. We also heard from Scottish Government officials that universities are unlikely to face financial penalties for failing to hit targets. Therefore, the committee has requested some clarification on how the bill will be made to work.

Secondly, we have asked for confirmation that the very welcome Scottish Government funding for retention activities will continue in future years, because there is not much point in widening access if the students who benefit then simply drop out of university.

Although the bill allows for the establishment of widening access agreements, what is crucial is whether the intended outcomes are delivered. We have therefore requested an annual update from the Scottish funding council on the progress that is being made on access and retention. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments in his reply to the committee’s report in that regard.

Much has been said inside and outside the Parliament about tuition fees. In the evidence that we took on the provision on tuition fees, the arguments that we heard were well rehearsed and were undoubtedly familiar to all members. The unions restated their opposition to tuition fees and said that students from the rest of the UK who studied in Scotland could face the highest-cost education system in the UK, but Universities Scotland challenged that evidence. It pointed out that the average Scottish fee is “spectacularly” below the average English fee, and that around 30 per cent of degree courses in England last for four years or more.

In effect, the bill puts on a legislative basis an existing agreement that Scottish institutions will cap the level of tuition fees that they charge students from the rest of the UK. The committee supported the general principles of the Scottish Government’s approach to the fees cap.

I turn to college regionalisation, which forms the most substantial part of the bill and on which we took a large amount of evidence. There was praise for the bill’s aims and the wider reform process, but several witnesses criticised the bill and the wider process. The changes that the bill proposes and the separate continuing process of college mergers will result in a significant restructuring of Scottish colleges. There will be regions with a single college—that will be the case here in Edinburgh, for example—as well as multicollege regions in Glasgow and Lanarkshire. New regional boards will be created for Glasgow and Lanarkshire, which will distribute funding and plan provision across the region. Individual colleges in those areas will be known as assigned colleges.

In the light of comments by the Scottish funding council, we particularly asked the cabinet secretary for a detailed explanation of the relationship between regional boards and assigned colleges. Specifically, the committee sought clarity on lines of funding and accountability between the two levels of governance. We also wanted to understand how regional boards will meet the needs of students and business without becoming overly bureaucratic or consuming precious resources.

The bill will also allow the funding council to review the provision of fundable further and higher education to ensure that it is provided in a coherent manner. Such a review could include consideration of the number of post-16 education bodies and of the learning and courses that they provide. The provision in question does not appear to radically alter the funding council’s existing powers in that regard, although Scottish Government officials said that it would give the funding council

“a clearer mandate to discuss with institutions evidence of, for example, unnecessary duplication that is to the detriment of learners and wider public investment.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 15 January 2013; c 1745.]

Universities Scotland criticised the proposals. It said that it was not the funding council’s responsibility to decide on the number of fundable higher education institutions and went on to set out some of the potential problems that a higher education institution could face if it were known that it was under review. Although the cabinet secretary and the funding council sought to reassure Universities Scotland, we have asked the Scottish Government to consider whether the bill could be amended to provide further reassurance to universities.

I turn to the provisions in the bill that concern data sharing. If the bill is passed, a legal duty will be placed on relevant bodies to share data with Skills Development Scotland to help it to identify young people who have disengaged with learning or training, or who may be at risk of doing so.

Although the cabinet secretary stressed that a relatively minor change is being sought, our understanding of the provision was not at all helped by the evidence that we received. In particular, we struggled to understand how a database—or a data hub, as it was called—could identify young people who were

“at risk of disengaging with learning or training”.

I had some difficulty understanding the evidence that we received from SDS. Our comprehension was not helped by the fact that the policy memorandum does not explain what the phrase means, nor does it say how many young people it could cover or exactly how they would be helped.

Although a minor change is being sought, the underlying policy is of immense importance and we took some time to disentangle the provision from the wider policy. We also asked SDS for a detailed explanation of how it will proactively support young people who may be

“at risk of disengaging with learning or training”.

The committee, by majority, supports the general principles of the bill. We have taken our responsibilities at stage 1 extremely seriously and have taken evidence on all the key issues from a wide range of interested parties. As ever, their input has been invaluable and I would like to thank all those who provided written submissions or oral evidence. I restate my—and, I am sure, the committee’s—thanks to the clerks and SPICe for all their support during the stage 1 process.

Our report summarises the bill’s strengths and weaknesses. Witnesses and the committee have made it clear that greater clarity on the bill is required, and I very much welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to work with the committee to ensure that the bill can and will be improved at stage 2.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

As a member of the Education and Culture Committee, I, along with my colleagues, sat through many hours of evidence on the bill, and my view on it has been shaped by what we heard from the students, staff and relevant interested parties—those who know most about further and higher education—who appeared before the committee.

As parliamentarians, we have a duty—particularly in our committee work—to interrogate and question what is brought before our Parliament. The Education and Culture Committee has done that to good effect, as is apparent to anyone who reads the committee’s report or who listened carefully to the convener’s speech.

I say at the outset—so that there is no room for misrepresentation, pretence or false indignation—that I and probably all the committee’s members support the broad aims of the bill. I certainly support the aim of improving the governance, transparency and accountability of universities, for which students and trade unionists have called. I support the reform of tuition fees for rest of UK students, for which student leaders have called. I support improvements to and the democratisation of college governance. I recognise the need to improve collaboration between colleges and universities, and I support improved data sharing to support people into employment.

I bow to no one in my support for widening access to higher education. A college education changed my life by providing me with the opportunity to enter higher education, and for many students like me it is the route to university. However, the evidence that we have heard has raised some serious concerns that strongly suggest that the bill as it stands is deeply flawed.

For example, the committee’s ability to fully comprehend the provisions on higher education governance was severely hampered. The Scottish funding council was supposed to commission a working group to develop a new and improved code of governance for universities, but instead the chairs of court took it upon themselves to undertake that work and appointed a steering group. The code has been neither published nor scrutinised by the Education and Culture Committee, and that is wholly unsatisfactory.

Indeed, the group’s development of the code was heavily criticised in evidence from the University and College Union Scotland, the Educational Institute of Scotland and NUS Scotland, which complained bitterly about the lack of student and staff representation on the group. Despite the unrepresentative composition of university boards, the university chairs told the committee that

“there is no particular problem with governance in Scotland to be solved.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 2011.]

Given that their assertion was contradicted by students and unions, I have some concerns about the steering group’s findings—whatever they may be. I am also concerned that the findings will be accepted entirely by the Government, with the result that the code

“would effectively become the ‘principles of governance’”.

Professor von Prondzynski himself said that governance was overwhelmingly excellent. Those views were rightly challenged by the UCU and NUS Scotland, and if Professor von Prondzynski thinks that governance is currently excellent, that raises the question of why a new code is needed.

There is also an apparent difference of opinion between the cabinet secretary and the chair of the funding council on whether the new code would be voluntary or compulsory, which is a pretty fundamental issue. We do not know whether the new code will deal with issues such as gender equality or staff and student representation on university boards of governance.

Section 3 of the bill relates to widening access, which is a subject that is close to my heart, but many questions that were asked about that subject remain unanswered. How is the objective to be achieved? What actions are to be taken by institutions to improve access? What is the target? Which groups are to be targeted? Who will be counted in the widening access total? What rate of improvement will be deemed a success? Which initiatives have been successful, and which have failed? How are admissions staff to be protected if they apply contextualised admissions? Will there be displacement? How will access be widened with no extra funding? What is to happen if universities do not play ball?

Government officials said in evidence that financial sanctions were unlikely in the event of a failure to widen access, but only today the cabinet secretary said in his letter to the committee that financial penalties may indeed be imposed.

What about retention, which is so vital to widening access? How can we talk about widening access when the very students who—like me when I went through the system—are most likely to access higher education through college are at present being denied a college place as part-time places and adult learning provisions are slashed? What relevance does widening access have for them?

I think that we all want access to continue to be widened and for the pace to increase significantly, not least because—as we heard in evidence—some institutions are failing miserably.

However, although the bill may reinforce widening access efforts, the questions that I have raised need to be answered first, particularly those that relate to funding and displacement. In the interim, through the conditions attached to the university grant process, the Scottish funding council could tackle the issue now, which is indeed what it should be doing.

College regionalisation is another element in the bill about which there are many concerns. The committee’s report states clearly that, in the policy memorandum,

“there is very little information provided about why changes require to be made.”

There are major concerns about the complexity and bureaucracy of the proposed college landscape, which will include regional strategic bodies, regional boards with assigned colleges, regional colleges and a completely different set-up for the University of the Highlands and Islands. David Belsey, of the EIS, summed up the situation very well:

“If it’s the Government’s wish to create a nationally incoherent FE structure with a myriad of different types of colleges, governing bodies and funding mechanisms with separate regulations for each, then this Bill is the way to go about it.”

Some witnesses expressed the view that the changes to the structures and bureaucracy of colleges are simply a cover for cuts—we know that another £25 million is to be taken from college budgets. The submission from Angus Council community planning partnership stated:

“However, in practice, recent changes to college funding for school-college partnerships have already restricted the range and volume of provision available to young people. It would be unwelcome if college regionalisation compounded this by diverting time, energy and money from core functions.”

Unison argued that

“the whole thrust of regionalisation is not really about taking a regional approach. Rather, it is about delivering budget cuts”.

The Unison representative went on to say that colleges are being forced into merger because

“they are afraid that if they do not, they will be cut out after the regional boards start to distribute the funding.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 5 February 2013; c 1953, 1957.]

There are many more issues on which clarity is needed. How will relationships between the regional bodies and assigned colleges work? Will that result in a bidding war? Will some colleges be preferred over others? Will the charitable status of colleges remain, given the increased ministerial powers and less autonomy? How will academic freedom be maintained? Will there be centralisation of courses? What will happen to local access? We have already witnessed the impact of regionalisation on local access with the closure of Edinburgh College’s construction campus at Dalkeith.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Those are good questions, but does the member have any answers to them? It sounds to me as though they could be issues for debate.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

What a fantastic question from Ms MacDonald. I just wish that she had put that point to the minister.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

Sorry, but I do not want members in the chamber to get the wrong impression of what occurred in the committee. The member raised many of those questions—he listed them in the way that he has done today—when the cabinet secretary gave evidence to the committee. In response, the cabinet secretary said:

“If the committee asks questions about each of the issues that you referred to, I will address them.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 26 February 2013; c 2073.]

Why did the member not ask the cabinet secretary any of those questions when he had the opportunity?

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The committee asked the cabinet secretary question after question after question, as did the people who gave evidence, so that is utter nonsense.

What about the strategic forum? How will that work? What are the costs of regionalisation and the projected savings? Is £50 million realistic? Is increasing ministerial powers over the appointment and removal of chairs desirable?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You are in your last minute.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Section 14, on “Review of further and higher education”, is a provision on which Universities Scotland has raised concerns.

Finally, on section 15, following the committee’s evidence session with SDS—Mr Maxwell also alluded to this—it would be fair to say that the committee was not much further forward in understanding the data-sharing proposals, on which many questions remain unanswered.

Although we largely agree with the aims of the bill, the bill itself is badly drafted, ill defined and clumsy. It is a confused piece of legislation. Anyone who reads the committee’s report will see that. Question after question remains, so a far greater degree of clarity is needed. The NUS, Colleges Scotland, Universities Scotland, the UCU, the EIS, the chairs of university courts, college principals, Unison, the Scottish funding council and members of all three Opposition parties on the Education and Culture Committee—and, indeed, Scottish National Party members of the committee—have all raised repeated and serious questions about the bill.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I take no pleasure in saying that the bill is not fit for purpose. The Government should recognise that, withdraw the bill and come back with one that the sector can support.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

We can all agree that this is a very important time in further and higher education. There are a huge number of challenges involved in facing up to a fast-changing world and in ensuring that our colleges and universities are fit for the future as regards their competitive edge, their flexibility and their ability to adapt to the needs of an ever-increasing diversity of students.

We should not underestimate the scale of that challenge. It was quite right that the Scottish Government was mindful of whether government had a legislative role to play in assisting with meeting that challenge. The Scottish Government, in conjunction with colleges, universities and the Scottish funding council, needed to decide which policies would best deliver excellence in our institutions, would maintain and enhance their international reputations and would respond to the economic and social needs of local economies. I hope that that decision is based on building on the current successes of our institutions. If a legislative route was seen to be desirable, it would be clear in its intentions, practical and acceptable to the institutions involved.

It was against those criteria that the Scottish Conservatives set out to examine the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. At the start of the process we were genuinely open-minded, largely on the basis that we had sympathy with some—albeit certainly not all—of the main policy intentions. As time has gone on, and following lengthy committee meetings examining a large amount of evidence—meetings that were ably and objectively chaired by Stewart Maxwell—we have increasingly come to the view that this is a bad bill. It is a bad bill not just because of its poor drafting; it is a bad bill because of the complete lack of clarity about the relationships between the new structures, which is particularly the case with regard to colleges. The bill has botched the balance between public accountability and autonomy, and it is a bad bill because there is so little evidence that it is needed and is able to deliver on the intentions behind it.

Alastair Sim of Universities Scotland summed it up well when he said:

“the bill has come adrift from the policy intentions.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 1977.]

I agree. Apart from those presentational problems, which formed a substantial part of the evidence, there are, for the Scottish Conservatives, some major policy issues with the bill, and I will consider those in the context of an increasingly competitive international situation for our universities.

Good governance is not in doubt—indeed, I do not believe that it ever was. If there was compelling evidence and serious examples of bad governance harming education and holding back our institutions, there might be a case for new legislation. However, the policy memorandum did not identify any such problems, and Professor von Prondzynski was at pains to say that he thought that the existing structures were “excellent”. That begs the question why the Scottish Government is so intent on such an unnecessary overhaul.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

The member cited Professor von Prondzynski. To be fair, she should not give the impression that Professor von Prondzynski said that everything was fine and that we should leave it at that. Professor von Prondzynski’s report is lengthy and detailed, and it makes many recommendations for improvements in governance. I am sure that the member will wish to acknowledge that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I acknowledge that, but the whole point is that Professor von Prondzynski was saying that there is no need for a radical overhaul, particularly—

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Forgive me, cabinet secretary, but an overhaul is not needed, particularly not on the governance of universities. The Government’s proposals are also intent on interfering in the management of universities and the sector has asked the Government to remove that key provision.

Although I respect the views of those with a slightly different perspective, who have argued fairly on the point of social justice, I cannot find the hard evidence, regarding some of the situations to which they have referred, that the bill will deliver better education than what we have now.

We are very nervous about legislating to insist on statutory requirements to have specific quotas on university courts or college boards. Apart from the complications involved, such as ensuring private sector representation on the boards of colleges that have significant links to businesses, that proposal removes the flexibility of governing bodies and their ability to reflect the diversity of our institutions, which is so important.

I will turn to the more deep-rooted concerns, specifically about the Scottish Government’s desire to have more powers over our colleges and universities, for example in extending the circumstances in which ministers could remove board members or oversee the management as well as the governance of universities. Apart from our fundamental opposition to that measure, because it threatens to undermine the autonomy of our tertiary education sector, I can see no logical evidence to move in that direction.

If the cabinet secretary cared to look around the world, he would see that those nations that are faring best in higher education in terms of academic success rates and retention rates, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank and the Shanghai ranking, are those whose Governments are less involved rather than more involved.

Indeed, in Finland—a country whose ideas on education the cabinet secretary is always keen to promote—in 2010, state influence was specifically removed from universities because it was stifling autonomy. We will not accept that aspect of the bill, which goes too far when it comes to Government meddling in our institutions. We cannot accept that, which is why we will not support the bill at stage 1.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We come to the open debate. I remind members that I cannot call them to speak unless they have pressed their request-to-speak buttons. The Presiding Officer has already indicated that members who are speaking later in the debate will have their time cut to five minutes. The members who will be affected have been advised of that. Otherwise, we will have speeches of six minutes, and I am afraid that it is a very strict six minutes.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

It is important that we ask what we want from the bill. I will talk about the issues on which we should all agree. We should agree on the principles of the bill. Some members have mentioned that we agree on certain parts, so we should work towards making the bill everything that it possibly can be. We agree on more than we disagree on, so let us not let personal politics get in the way of progress.

For me, access to higher and further education is one of the main issues. The exciting provisions in the bill are those about ensuring that, regardless of financial or social background, young people in Scotland have the opportunity to be all that they can be. To illustrate that, I will tell a short story about my grandparents, who worked in a cotton mill in Ferguslie Park in Paisley all their lives, which was not unusual for people from Paisley. I use them as an example of how things have changed and why we must adapt and work differently in the FE and HE sectors today, which is the important point.

When my dad eventually came along and went to school in Ferguslie, in what was junior modern secondary in those days, like many of his generation he was deemed at a very young age to be not clever enough to have a more complex formal education. When he was 15, he left school and was told by my gran to get himself a trade. He was lucky that, at that time, there were opportunities in the town, educationally and through apprenticeships with companies. He managed to get an apprenticeship with a local engineering firm and trained as an armature winder. He served his time and was extremely happy in his work.

He met my mum and eventually my grandfather and mother persuaded him that he would probably be better off if he worked for himself. My grandfather, being a Paisley man who was clever and shrewd when it came to money, had stashed away quite a bit. That was the fork in the road that changed my family’s future and changed their life. It was my father’s vocational training that made the difference and that made that opportunity available to him in the 1960s.

The reason for the story is that the cotton mills are no longer in Paisley and the place where my dad served his apprenticeship is now a private housing estate. That is why I support the Scottish Government’s commitment to further and higher education and why I feel that it and the bill are important. The bill supports the premise of providing education and vocational opportunities for all our young people in today’s competitive and challenging times. The world that we live in is literally a lifetime away from the world that I spoke of earlier. I support the bill because of what it will provide for my children’s future and for the current generation of young people who are trying to make their way in the world.

That is why, for me, widening access to higher education is the most important part of the bill and something that we must strive to achieve. It is one issue on which, allegedly, we all agree. It has been said in the Education and Culture Committee that we agree on that. However, the status quo is clearly not delivering wider access. Research that was published last year by the NUS in Scotland predicted that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 40 years to achieve a fair balance of rich and poor students at Scottish universities.

Robin Parker, the president of the NUS, told the Education and Culture Committee that “The legislation must happen.” He continued:

“There are examples of good practice on widening access; they just need to be stepped up and done on a wider scale. Every university needs to do more.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 1985.]

In my area, the University of the West of Scotland, which I have used as an example on numerous occasions, has continued to do extremely well on access but, as Mr Findlay mentioned, we have to ensure that universities retain those students. Until now, progress on ensuring that more students from poorer backgrounds attend university has been slow. Participation among those from the most disadvantaged areas has increased by just 1 per cent in the past nine years, but some would lead us to believe that we do not need legislation to make a difference on that.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

We all want progress on this issue and the cabinet secretary was quite correct when he said in his opening remarks that there are different ways of doing that. Does the member accept the point that was made by the university principals that the criteria for widening access need to be as broad as possible and that a lot more progress has been made that has not been represented in some of the statistics that we have to hand?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You are approaching your final minute, Mr Adam.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

No, I would say that 1 per cent in the past nine years is unacceptable and is why we need legislation to improve the situation.

Much has been said about university governance, but the idea of the bill is to recognise the principle of responsible autonomy and to give legislative support to a Scottish code of conduct that has been developed by the sector. As the Scottish Government continues to invest record amounts in the higher education sector, it is only right that we have the highest standards of accountability in return.

The bill supports the Scottish Government’s ambitious FE reforms, which deliver learners in the economy from 2014-15 onwards, creating efficiencies of £15 million. We should also talk about the £61 million that will be put into that sector during the next two years. Scottish colleges are on record as saying that that money will go a long way towards helping them to deliver regionalisation.

There is so much in the bill that we cannot say, as has already been said, that it is a bad bill. We have to work together and make sure that the bill is passed so that access is widened. We need to ensure that young people in Scotland can be all that they can be and that they get the opportunities that we are all striving to get for them.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

As Neil Findlay has already said, we can share much of the Government’s policy aims and objectives but that does not mean that the proposed legislation is justified or desirable.

Of course we support the aim of improving the education system for learners, but the question that we must ask is whether the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill makes that more likely to happen. I am not yet convinced that the bill makes that more likely. I will go further: I believe that, from start to finish, the bill in its current form has raised significant concerns that could make matters worse.

There are concerns about the lack of detail in the bill about university governance and college reform, because there was a lack of meaningful consultation with institutions, trade unions, students and other stakeholders before the legislation was drafted. There are questions about whether legislation is even needed in certain areas, and there are concerns that the bill will not achieve better outcomes in widening access and improving colleges because they are being undermined by other Scottish Government policy choices.

I do not have time to concentrate on all those points, but l will focus on three areas—university governance, college reform and widening access.

I am sure that we all want to improve university governance.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

Not just now, sorry.

As we know, the bill states that institutions will have to comply with any principles of governance or management that appear to constitute good practice but, as the Education and Culture Committee report states, the bill does not specify the particular principles of governance that are to be adopted.

The Education and Culture Committee has not seen the content of the governance code, which is not expected to be published until sometime in April. The steering group that was set up to draft the code had no staff or student representation. I firmly believe that changes that will affect university governance should be developed with staff and students if we want to get it right.

We need to listen to the concerns that our universities have raised. Professor Von Prondzynski’s review of higher education helped to initiate the bill and his recent evidence to the Education and Culture Committee on the code of governance said:

“it is not yet clear what particular principles of good governance might be enforced by the legislation. Moreover, the fear has arisen that the provision could be used to apply some other unspecified set of principles of good governance, or might even at some future date be used to apply the views of particular politicians or officials.”

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

I am sorry but I do not think that I will have time to make all my points.

Professor Von Prondzynski went on to describe two ways of dealing with that. One was to delay the legislation and the other was deal with it outwith a legislative framework. Neither involved voting at 5 o’ clock today to proceed with the bill.

Witness after witness raised significant concerns about the college reforms that are proposed in the bill. Colleges Scotland said about the two-tier structure:

“There does not appear to be any precedent for this model”.

Susan Walsh of Cardonald College said:

“clarity is still required on how the assigned college boards will work with the regional strategic boards.”

Mandy Exley of Edinburgh College said:

“We are concerned about accountability and autonomy”.—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 5 February 2013; c 1914-15.]

The Scottish Government should be listening to the weight of evidence presented to the Education and Culture Committee.

Widening access is an aim that we fully support—I am sure that we all fully support it. The debate is timely in that regard because just last week figures were published that showed that a pupil from a state school in England has more chance of going to university than a pupil from a state school in Scotland.

There are, of course, questions to be raised on university admissions policy, but questions also need to be raised about Scottish Government policy. Tinkering at the edges is not good enough. Substantial progress will not be made on widening access unless substantial investment is targeted at improving life chances in pre-16 education. This Government’s lack of prioritisation of pre-school education is incompatible with the widening access agenda, as are the massive cuts to colleges.

As the committee report states, there was little information in the policy memorandum on levels of representation or on the relative success of various initiatives. That is not surprising because, as officials admitted, there has been something like only a 1 per cent improvement over the past nine years. The policy memorandum also does not explain how the bill would improve access or the rate of improvement that is being sought by the Scottish Government.

When challenged on that point by the committee, the cabinet secretary said that he did not expect an overall target to be set. If the Government was serious about widening access, it would be serious about answering such questions. Officials even downplayed the possibility of financial penalties if universities did not meet targets—something that the cabinet secretary has now talked up. All of this is to be achieved without a new and additional budget and there will not be any displacement either. If it sounds too good to be true, it is because it probably is.

Those are not just our concerns. Concerns have been raised by a number of organisations. The Open University, which was created by a Labour Government in the 1960s, is an institution that probably knows more about widening access than any other organisation in the UK. Like us, it supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to increase the number of students from non-traditional backgrounds but it would like to see

“greater policy direction in this area”.

I can sum up my argument in five words. This bill is a mess. It is quite telling that Mike Russell has basically pleaded with members of the Education and Culture Committee to lodge amendments at stage 2 to make the bill better.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The bill is not in a fit state to proceed. The Education and Culture Committee has done its job in scrutinising the bill. The Scottish Government has not made a decent case, never mind a compelling case, for the bill. Therefore I join the consensus outwith the SNP in calling for the bill to be delayed and reconsidered.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

I welcome the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. The areas that it addresses are key to ensuring that our higher and further education sectors can meet the economic challenges ahead.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Adamson, can you pull your microphone round, please? Thank you.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

Sorry. The bill is about better support for jobs and economic growth and about improving life chances, especially for our young people. It is about fundamentally changing the provision as regards skills and other forms of post-16 education by aligning learning to the labour market, and about ensuring the Scottish Government’s aspirations to improve economic participation and productivity and, ultimately, to increase the economic prosperity of our country.

It is important to remember why the reforms are necessary. The 1990s Tory model of incorporated colleges led to competition and duplication in the sector. Variations and questionable policies on college reserves resulted in £200 million being tied up and not being used for the benefit of the students and there was industrial unrest. I will quote from the EIS in that respect:

“The EIS believes that this poor financial situation stems from the funding basis of incorporation, which promoted deficit management as the norm and allowed deficits to grow ... It is a matter of record that the further education sector has among the worst record of industrial relations and industrial unrest in the public sector in Scotland. While accepting that this situation relates in part to problems arising from historical funding deficits, the EIS believes it also clearly indicates poor personnel and financial management on the part of those Principals and Board members charged with those very important functions.”

That is a quote from 2004—it is from the EIS’s further education lecturers association’s response to the Scottish Executive’s consultation paper on the implementation of measures resulting from the review of governance and accountability in the FE sector.

I suggest that the Labour Party had a chance to address some of those issues and do away with that Tory model and its resulting problems, but failed to do so.

I know that members from the opposite benches have raised some concerns about where we are with regard to the bill and the matter of the governance guidance not being available. However, the committee knows that, when the guidance is published, it will be taking further evidence on it, and it will be scrutinised prior to stage 2.

There were questions about widening access agreements and what implications there were for ensuring that access is widened. However, the outcome agreements have been largely ignored by those on the Opposition benches. I suggest that the outcome agreements are key to ensuring—

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

Labour members would not take an intervention from Margo MacDonald, so I am not prepared to take one now.

Many questions were raised about the reduction in part-time places—I think that Mr Findlay quoted Unison claims in that regard. We have to examine the issue in more detail. Mr Findlay has been on record claiming that time reductions in modern apprenticeships have somehow made them less valuable. However, in 2008-09, colleges enrolled 79,588 students in programmes that were designed to be completed in under 10 hours. Those programmes averaged five hours each, while a full-time further education student was required to study for at least 720 hours.

I note that full-time student numbers increased by 22 per cent from 2005-06 to 2011-12, and that we now have 119,448 full-time-equivalent students in Scotland—the highest level that there has ever been. Those figures come from Scotland’s Colleges’ baseline report for the academic year 2011-12.

I will say a little bit about widening access. I have spoken in the chamber before about how important education was to my family—to my father, who went back to university as a mature learner after losing his job, to my siblings and to me. Today, I was at the launch of the roll-out of the routes to empathy initiative, which encourages young children to empathise in relationships and understand others’ emotions, with the aim of reducing violence and aggression. The launch took place in Berryhill primary school in Craigneuk, which, following Thatcher’s closure of Ravenscraig, remains one of the poorest and most socially deprived areas in Scotland. I want those children to know that higher and further education are available to them and that they have a right to them, in a Scottish climate.

Johann Lamont comes to this chamber claiming that the SNP’s constitutional agenda and the referendum in 2014 has put Scotland on hold. I regret that the better together parties also call for a delay in the implementation of the bill. As a former project manager, I know that delay costs. It creates uncertainty and leaves people in a bad place.

The Opposition parties were wrong when they called for a further delay in the implementation of the curriculum for excellence, and they are wrong to call for a delay in this bill. It is the better together parties that are putting Scotland on hold and preventing the progress of our nation.

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour

After reading all the criticisms, it is difficult to imagine how the Scottish Government can argue that the bill is fit for purpose. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it can argue that the bill is not fatally flawed or, at best, in need of a major overhaul. There has been widespread criticism of the bill—not least because of its centralisation of power in the hands of the cabinet secretary.

I will start with what might seem to be the mildest criticism in the committee’s report on the bill—until it is translated to take account of the understatement of the cabinet secretary’s allied majority on the committee. The overall conclusion states:

The Committee has some concern”.

This is not a minor concern of the sort that would not survive the private meeting in which the report was finalised, and nor is it the sort of concern that could languish in obscurity in lesser paragraphs. The concern is too serious to be restricted to the lesser conclusions of the report, but is so great that it forms a significant part of the overall conclusion. The concerns, which are

“expressed in the relevant sections of the report”, are more about the specific means by which the bill will achieve its principles. In other words, it is not clear how it will do what it sets out to do. The report says:

“The Committee has asked the Cabinet Secretary for various pieces of information that will provide reassurance”, which could be translated as, “Captain! Our shields have failed!”

What about the “relevant sections”? On university governance, there is something fundamentally undemocratic about seeking powers to ensure compliance with principles that are not in the bill and are not yet defined or agreed elsewhere. Tony Brian of Glasgow Caledonian University noted:

“The provision seems to give future ministers the ability to choose any code of governance that they want”.—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 2013.]

The governance code, which the university chairs are drafting, will not be ready until after evidence taking on the bill, so holding back the bill would allow such failings to be addressed.

The cabinet secretary has recognised some of the shortcomings, such as a lack of gender balance in governance. Encouragement to lodge Opposition amendments at stage 2 tacitly acknowledges the bill’s weaknesses. Perhaps, in the spirit of political consensus, we should take the entire bill away for a while and overhaul it for him.

I welcome the recognition of the obstacles that face people who live in areas of high deprivation, which is a major factor in people not realising their potential. However, it seems to be unnecessarily restrictive and lacking in flexibility to have certain postcode areas as the sole indicator of deprivation. As Lead Scotland noted, that will not help other disadvantaged groups,

“such as disabled students and carers”.

The cabinet secretary claims NUS Scotland support for his agenda, but I note that NUS Scotland seeks clearer legislative action, including an annual review by Parliament

“to ensure that we are on track to get to greater fair access in less than 40 years.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 1988.]

However, the bill and its accompanying documents shed little light on how such improvements will happen, or on the consequences for universities that fail to deliver.

Photo of John Pentland John Pentland Labour


I have previously expressed my doubts about the motivation behind college regionalisation, and have highlighted the lack of evidence of any educational benefits. It seems to be clear that the main impetus for college reform is cost saving, with inevitable consequences for students, staff and courses. Many of the changes are already under way in a hasty and haphazard fashion. What does the bill add to that mess?

There may be good reasons why the cabinet secretary wants more power to get rid of chairs and other board members, but without the principles that underpin such powers being explained, people will think the worst. It might have helped to allay suspicions if there had been meaningful consultation on the appointment of interim regional chairs, and wider involvement and more transparency in the appointment of board members.

I am concerned about the regional strategic bodies, which seem to have a somewhat undefined but potentially damaging scope to act as mini funding councils, thereby adding another layer of controlling bureaucracy rather than enabling bureaucracy. If we add that to the extension of powers for the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council, we have a nice accumulation of power and resources that are being taken away from those who provide education.

All in all, the impact of the bill seems to be to build barriers to transparency and to concentrate power in the hands of central Government and its obedient satellites. If that is not the intention and the bill is really meant to improve the quality of education, it would be a good idea for the cabinet secretary to take it away for a while to address the committee’s concerns and to reassure it.

Photo of Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

I apologise for having a rather croaky voice, Presiding Officer.

The bill is important. I believe that the education sector is taking a serious view of the proposals and is engaging positively with the Scottish Government in seeking an effective outcome. There are still matters to be clarified, as Stewart Maxwell highlighted in his speech, but that is to be expected with such a comprehensive and necessary piece of legislation. There is clearly a requirement to cut costs in the light of Westminster’s proposed budget cut, but it is clearly possible to create efficiencies that will deliver better and more targeted services to students. That is rightly where the bill’s focus is: positive steps to create positive outcomes for students.

For me, one of the bill’s most important elements is that it will widen access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As someone who could have benefited from that, I welcome it. Progress has been too slow to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds attend university. In the past nine years, participation by students from disadvantaged areas has increased by only 1 per cent, which is a clear indication that the current process is not working as it should. The bill will ensure that all universities will make progress on widening access, with £29 million funding each year and 1,700 extra places.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

Colin Beattie must have had some of the same experiences as a young person leaving school and looking for a future as I had. I went on to higher education because there was a grant, or bursary; I had enough money and my mother could do without a wage. I put it to the member that exactly the same considerations exist in similar households today.

Photo of Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

That is a good point by Margo MacDonald. Indeed, I think that she, I and others have benefited in the past in that regard.

The NUS Scotland president, Robin Parker, told the Education and Culture Committee:

“A year ago, it would have taken 40 years if things had carried on at the current rate.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 1988.]

He also stated that the “legislation must happen”. I would be shocked if Opposition parties wished that proposal to be put at risk.

I am pleased that a cap for RUK tuition fees is being put in place. That will help to manage the existing and inevitable marketisation of the education sector, and ensure that students are not disadvantaged and do not face fees that are above the level of the tuition-fee loan that is available to them. I note that the universities have indicated that fees are substantially lower in Scotland than they are in the rest of the UK.

Governance, both in universities and colleges, has been carefully and fully explored by the Education and Culture Committee. Liz Smith in particular made a number of thoughtful and useful contributions in that regard. Concerns have been raised about the subject of responsible autonomy and whether the Scottish Government might seek to erode the independence of education institutions. However, the bill is not about the Government taking control of universities. A Scottish code of conduct is being developed that will be given legislative support and will recognise the important principle of responsible autonomy. We are investing record amounts in the higher education sector, so it is right that we demand the highest standards of accountability.

The bill supports and reinforces plans to reform the college sector. Quite simply, regionalisation makes sense, and most education institutions support the bill. It is perhaps appropriate to quote a few of the comments that have been made in that regard. Adam Smith College stated:

“The Board ... of Adam Smith College ... generally supports the reform programme as it applies to Further Education”.

Edinburgh College stated:

“We are supportive of the aims of the Bill.”

North Highland College stated:

“Broadly we support the regionalisation agenda.”

Edinburgh University Student Association welcomed

“much of what is included in the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.”

Families Outside said that it

“welcomes the aims of the Bill”.

East Dunbartonshire Council said that it welcomes

“the bill’s intention that educational provisions would be delivered at the local level as part of a coherent regional offer.”

From those quotations, it is clear that although some stakeholders were looking for clarification on aspects of the bill, its aims and broad approach have been welcomed and supported. I believe that the Scottish Government’s support to colleges, despite unprecedented budget cuts by Westminster, is commendable.

The 2013-14 budget will deliver an additional £61 million over two years, thereby setting the funding floor of £522 million, which colleges must welcome in the current tight financial situation. The Government is investing £2 billion over the four years to 2014-15. College resource budgets are higher than they were in every year under Labour. The fall of 4.4 per cent in the college budget in 2012-13 and 2014-15 is hugely less than the fall in comparable budgets in England, which have suffered a 15.7 per cent fall.

The scaremongering by Labour over so-called college waiting lists is reprehensible. Labour’s playing politics with our education system is wholly unjustified. Labour claimed that there were some 21,000 students on college waiting lists, despite the cabinet secretary clearly setting out the issues to do with data collection. Last week, the audit of college waiting lists that the cabinet secretary requested found that only 4 per cent of the 21,000 students are on waiting lists.

The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on introducing the bill. I look forward to the bill’s progress.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank everyone who gave evidence to the Education and Culture Committee, and I thank our clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre.

I acknowledge the efforts of Stewart Maxwell, who worked hard to ensure that the committee came to as united a position as possible. On the broad policy objectives, of course, that was straightforward: there was unanimity.

Like other members, I know that widening access to our universities is essential if everyone is to have an opportunity to fulfil their potential. Progress has been made in recent years, but it has been too slow—in some cases it has been all but non-existent.

Likewise, there is no disagreement about improving the governance and accountability of our colleges and universities. The delivery of high-quality further and higher education to students of all ages, in all parts of the country and beyond, is an ambition that we all share. The fact that we can point to excellence in our colleges and universities does not mean that we can rest on our laurels, or that improvements are not possible or needed.

I think that we are agreed on the policy aims and objectives—the question is whether the bill advances those aims. To be fair to Mr Russell, I will say that in his relatively conciliatory speech he accepted the question, although I disagree with the conclusion that he drew.

Let us not forget that Parliament should seek to legislate only when necessary—when alternatives do not exist or would not deliver the outcomes that we want to achieve. During the past few months, I, like other committee members, have been left with the impression that in too many of the areas that the bill covers the evidence suggests that that test is not met. The risk of legislating “just in case” is that we put in place rigid structures that have unintended consequences.

Parliament can take great pride in having passed laws that are radical, progressive and hugely beneficial. However, we still seem to be happier to pass laws than we are to check, in due course, whether those laws are doing what was intended of them. It is not difficult to understand why that is: decreeing in law that something should or should not happen has its attractions. When we are challenged on what we have done to address a particular problem, it can feel reassuring to be able to point to new legislation. However, for the reasons that I gave, we should always question whether legislation is necessary and whether it is the best or only way of achieving our objectives.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I will do so later, if I can. I am sorry.

Where is the evidence for statutory underpinning in this case? College regionalisation is well under way, accelerating a process that has been going on for years and reflecting an approach that was pioneered in the Highlands and Islands. The policy should be driven by a focus on delivering the best education for learners of all ages and for the communities in which they live. It is unclear why Mr Russell feels the need to give the college sector such a hefty statutory kick up the backside.

The fact that Mr Russell is seeking powers to review course content and provision across a region seems to undermine the argument for having strategic regional boards, and offers the prospect of ministerial meddling on an unprecedented scale. His seeking expanded hiring and firing powers reinforces that impression.

On access, progress is being made, albeit that it is being made from a low base and is not nearly fast enough. The minimum income guarantee will help, as I am sure Margo MacDonald acknowledges, and fair access agreements are in place. Such agreements, along with the funding levers that ministers have at their disposal, can help to ensure that access becomes core to the mission of our universities. Indeed, that seems to be explicit in NUS Scotland’s call for

“a defined link between the public funding universities receive, and the public benefit they provide.”

Given that the Government has made it clear that it does not envisage using the financial penalties that legislative provision would offer, it is difficult at this stage to see what such provision would add.

In passing, I pay tribute to the success of the Open University, which during the past 10 years has managed to double the number of students coming to it from poorer backgrounds. The OU, in which my mother was formerly a tutor, makes the fair point that using the Scottish index of multiple deprivation risks excluding many people on lower incomes who live in less densely populated or rural areas.

On a similar theme, the Scottish children’s services coalition argues that efforts to widen access should be broadened to include children with complex needs, including learning difficulties. The committee was sympathetic to that case, although again it is debatable whether that could not be achieved through fair access agreements and targeted funding.

I appreciate that there are other issues, but I will finish on governance and section 2 of the bill. In his report, Professor von Prondzynski accepted that there has been no “systemic governance problem” in our universities. Nevertheless, the committee heard sufficient evidence of areas in which improvement should be made—not least in making governing bodies more representative. Evidence also suggests that, internationally, the best-performing universities are those that have greatest autonomy. I accept that, in using their responsible autonomy, universities must now respond to the legitimate concerns that have been raised.

The difficulty is one of timing. A code of good governance is currently being developed and may yet address the concerns that have been raised. If it does not, there would still be time to act, notwithstanding that conditions of grant and outcome agreements also remain persuasive tools that are available to ministers and the funding council.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats fully support the objectives that the cabinet secretary is pursuing. Widening access, improving the accountability of our universities and colleges and delivering the highest quality of education are sensible goals that require that changes be made. The question is whether those changes can only be delivered, or are best delivered, through the legislative measures that the cabinet secretary has proposed. Serious doubts remain on that point. Mr Russell sees himself as a great reformer, of course—that has led him to a spot of bother in the past—but I hope that he recognises the challenge that he faces in convincing Parliament, and not only his party, that his approach to achieving entirely legitimate objectives is the right one.

Given the Government’s majority, the bill will be passed at stage 1, but the task that we face at stage 2 to ensure that we do good and avoid doing harm should not be underestimated by anyone.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

The Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill has its origins in reports and reviews by Ferdinand von Prondzynski and Russel Griggs. Given the constraints of time and the wide-ranging nature of the bill, I intend to concentrate on Professor von Prondzynski’s review of higher education governance.

Professor von Prondzynski’s report on higher education governance drew both support and opposition. It tended to divide people along similar lines to the expressions of support for and criticism of the bill. The professor wanted to rein in the pay of principals and make governance more transparent and open, and he made the point that our universities, many of which date back to the middle ages, have myriad governance arrangements, including a few that were founded by papal bull.

Among the eminent people on von Prondzynski’s review panel was the then rector of the University of Edinburgh, Iain MacWhirter, who was, of course, elected by and spoke for the students. Mr MacWhirter said at the time that the proposed reforms were very much in the Scottish tradition of education. He wrote, of the phrase “the democratic intellect”, that

“There has been much debate about what George Elder Davies, who coined that phrase in the 1960s, really meant. But Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski ... has finally discerned its settled meaning. Scotland’s universities should be seen as engines of social and cultural improvement—not just for the benefit of the individual, but for society as a whole.”

He went on to say—I fully endorse this—that the democratic intellect “means no tuition fees”. It means not allowing our universities to become finishing schools for the well off.

The bill is a continuation of the Government’s commitment to free education, which is enshrined in its proposals to widen access.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

Given that endorsement of the professor’s report, can Joan McAlpine tell me why none of his recommendations is included in the bill?

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I do not know what bill Jenny Marra has been reading, because that is not the case. The University and College Union has welcomed the fact that the cabinet secretary intends that Professor von Prondzynski’s recommendations will be carried forward in the governance of universities. I am not quite sure where Jenny Marra is coming from.

Mr Russell told the committee that the von Prondzynski review should be the basis of new governance structures that arise from the bill. I welcome Mr Russell’s stated regret about the lack of student and staff representation on the steering group that is developing the Scottish code of governance and I am pleased that his statements in that regard were welcomed by the University and College Union.

It has been suggested by some members that von Prondzynski is in agreement with the Opposition parties, so it is important to go back to what his review says about universities’ governance. In the introduction to his report, he praises the considerable achievements of Scotland’s universities, but he is far from uncritical. He said:

“In the recent past ... there have been various issues that have attracted adverse publicity and prompted avoidable disputes, which indicate that there are questions to be addressed. Some of the evidence submitted to this review, speaks of concerns about the extent to which the university community of staff and students is now able to participate in collective self-governance”.

He was also extremely critical of the way in which principals are paid. I raised that issue with the chairs of the university courts when they appeared before the committee. They did not seem to see any need to reform the way in which principals are paid, even though some principals are paid far more than the Prime Minister.

The commitment to widening access is possibly the most important part of the bill. It has been welcomed by NUS Scotland, which said—as others have mentioned—that current progress means that it would take 40 years to achieve true equality of access. The principle of widening access has also been welcomed by Inclusion Scotland, Capability Scotland, the British Medical Association Scotland, the centre of excellence for looked-after children in Scotland, and by Mark Batho, the chief executive of the Scottish funding council.

Some people have questioned the need to legislate for widening access. However, Mr Batho put it very well in oral evidence to the committee when he said:

“Setting out that intention in legislation gives extra force to what already exists—namely, the outcome agreements that we are developing at the moment, which are not referred to in statute.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 26 February 2013; c 2036.]

Michael Russell has been open-minded in seeking ways to improve the bill, and given that we all claim to support its principles, I urge Opposition parties to enter the spirit of consensus, to preserve Scotland’s democratic intellect and take it into the 21st century.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

First, I remind George Adam that further and higher education is not exclusively for young people. It is a mark of its success that so many mature students have entered further and higher education. Secondly, and perhaps unusually, I truly thank Stewart Maxwell. It is very refreshing to hear an SNP committee convener give such a balanced contribution. He is not here, but I am sure that he will hear that.

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests.

As Neil Findlay did, I want to record how much I appreciate further education. I went into further education to prepare for university as a mature student and a single parent of two very young pre-school children. It was in further education that I spent 20 years lecturing in economics, prior to coming here in 1999.

I am very pleased to speak in this debate, at a time when the future of further and higher education is very prominent on the political agenda. We are now in a position to review all the evidence that has been submitted on the bill and the Education and Culture Committee’s response.

I am also pleased to speak in the debate because of my experience of further education when colleges were going through previous changes. In 1992—I do not recognise that time to be as Clare Adamson remembers it—colleges were given far greater autonomy and the ability to enjoy greater flexibility when meeting the differing needs of students. I was at the coalface at that time and I am very clear that those changes meant that our colleges could respond much better to the demands of communities and to the needs of employers, mature students, those who wanted to study part time or through distance learning, and young people.

As a lecturer at Inverness College, I tutored people who were incarcerated in prison, prison officers, people who worked on oil rigs, people who worked in different parts of the world in the oil industry and people in the most remote areas. The sector is one of success. The changes were good for our colleges and they are largely the reason for their success today. That is why it is so deeply unfair that those same colleges have ended up taking the full brunt of SNP education cuts.

I hope that, even at this late stage of the stage 1 debate, the cabinet secretary will respond to the reasonable concerns that have been raised both in committee and across the chamber. I am sure that Mike Russell would prefer to see consensus as he moves forward with the bill, rather than be isolated and see it pass simply on the SNP majority.

I want to talk about college structures and governance. In particular, I would like to look at the University of the Highlands and Islands, which is unique and not the same as FE colleges under a regional structure. In asking for some clarity around the issue, I quote from a letter from UHI’s Perth College that was sent to my colleague Liz Smith, of which the cabinet secretary also has a copy. It states:

“The highlands and islands is the only region where a university is identified as a regional strategic body for the provision of FE. This pluralistic function is untried and unique.”

What concerns me is this:

“The proposed arrangements are a very real threat to our ability to plan to meet local needs for FE and to effectively deliver the quality of HE and research required to enable UHI to succeed.”

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

My time has been cut; I have only five minutes.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I will give you a second more in which to take an intervention.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I have seen the letter and I reassure the member that it is very clear, from the agreement on the structure of UHI, that the further education committee should be central to what is being done. I saw the letter only yesterday. I give Mary Scanlon the reassurance that, if the arrangements in the Highlands and Islands do not match those expectations, it will be possible under the bill to set up alternative arrangements and I will do so because the college needs that help.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will allow another 40 seconds.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for that reassurance. I am sure that it will be heard.

My final point is on the need to legislate. Since 1999, we have had health targets, health improvement, efficiency and governance, access and treatment—HEAT—targets and other targets, and the Public Audit Committee is looking at waiting times targets. I think that we need to be very specific about targets that will be part of an outcome agreement. We need to set out precisely how those targets can be measured and what happens if the targets are not met. It is easy to say that we will have a target; it is far more difficult to measure that.

What strikes me about the debate is the consistency in the evidence that has been provided about the lack of clarity in many key sections of the bill, and the many questions about why it is needed. That does not sound like a good base for legislation in any Parliament.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

I contribute to this debate with two hats on—as a committee substitute and as the constituency member whose constituency has the second greatest concentration of university jobs and students of any constituency in the country.

In my constituency, we have the University of Edinburgh, which we are always able to celebrate as being the best performing Scottish university in international league tables. We sometimes do not celebrate that enough because we are Scottish and do not talk about our successes. The University of Edinburgh has chosen to compete in international league tables ranked according to research excellence, teaching excellence and cosmopolitan nature, while others have chosen to do other things.

I believe that access must be fundamental to what all institutions do. A university is not fulfilling its objectives if it excludes. The University of Edinburgh has taken fantastic steps in being an early adopter of contextual admissions and in making great attempts to reach out into the local area.

No university can have an excuse for creating artificial barriers, and it is clear to me, from looking at the data, that the national status quo is not an option. It is incumbent on those who say that legislation is not necessary to say what else they would do. After all—as Liam McArthur mentioned—this is stage 1. If members agree with the bill’s general principles, it is incumbent on them to support it at this stage and then work to improve it at stage 2. I fundamentally agree with the general principle of widening access. I accept that the Conservatives have a principled disagreement and therefore I would not include them in that characterisation.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Mr Biagi should be under no illusions: we are not against widening access.

Mr Biagi makes a good point on the advances made by the University of Edinburgh. However, it and many other universities have achieved that without legislation. Why is the legislative process so important? Why can that access not be delivered through other means?

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

I will clarify my point. I was stating that the Conservatives have a principled opposition to how autonomy is dealt with in the bill, whereas other parties that seem to have broad support for the bill’s principles are nonetheless poised to vote against it.

Targets are strong at concentrating the mind and increasing scrutiny. We must move from an inputs to an outputs model, so that we are measuring the results of each institution. I must say that the University of Edinburgh has been slightly disappointing when one looks at the SIMD measure.

That leads me—with very little time left—on to the SIMD measure issue that others have mentioned. SMID is a good base but, just as the legislation is not the last word and the issue is the flexibility that is shown and how we go on from that, we need to look further than that measure.

The average population of a SIMD zone is 803. That can contain significant diversity, especially in small settlements or in places such as Edinburgh, where there has been a deliberate attempt to pursue mixed housing approaches to planning. Students from the lowest income backgrounds are the least likely to travel. I want universities to get credit for reaching not only the hardest to reach but those whom are genuinely underrepresented.

We should look beyond SIMD. We should also look at subjects in institutions. For example, medicine and law show tremendous levels of segregation by socioeconomic class. That situation has continued for many years. When I suggested that to the NUS, it was somewhat resistant because of a fear of dilution. If we looked at the NS-SEC—the national statistics socioeconomic classification—approach, we would still have a stretching target.

I ask the cabinet secretary to consider whether there is scope to amend the bill at stage 2 to introduce a process so that students at institutions are consulted when widening access agreements are being drawn up. In that way, a genuine upwards pressure would be placed on how ambitious those targets would be. Further input should also be taken from people who are in a good position to say what could be achieved in widening access.

Sometimes I wonder what would happen were I to speak to younger versions of myself about what I am doing now. The Marco Biagi of 10 years ago was a full-time student representative at the University of St Andrews Students Association. I think that we would get on well in relation to what I am doing now. I am not sure whether that is a good or a bad thing; rather than make an observation on that, I will simply sit down.

Photo of Jenny Marra Jenny Marra Labour

I associate myself with Mary Scanlon’s remarks on the impact of the bill on mature students—especially female mature students—because concerns about that have been represented strongly to me by colleges in my region.

I will focus my remarks on university governance. Professor von Prondzynski produced 17 far-reaching recommendations, which the cabinet secretary has repeatedly accepted since February last year. For governing bodies, the report advocates greater student participation, majority lay representation and the introduction of gender quotas, which is an issue that he knows that I have brought to the chamber before and which we on the Labour benches have been arguing for. The professor suggests greater inclusion in the selection process of university principals, training for governors and a distinct Scottish code of conduct, to name but a few recommendations.

When we look at the bill, we see that not one of the 17 recommendations has been introduced. I know that Joan McAlpine and, I think, the cabinet secretary, contested that point so to check, in preparing for the debate at the weekend, I tweeted Professor Prondzynski and asked him directly whether any of his recommendations are contained in the bill. He tweeted back:

“Not directly, no. But I believe there will be legislation later in the parliament.”

I suggest that the cabinet secretary commissioned the report knowing that the bill was to come forward. I am not quite sure why he wants to delay the implementation of Professor Prondzynski’s recommendations, given that he has accepted all of them since February last year. He might want to clarify that in his closing remarks.

Despite the fact that the cabinet secretary commissioned the professor’s report and has accepted it, all that the bill does is provide for the Scottish ministers to withhold funding from a university that does not comply with their vague idea of good governance. As was pointed out in the committee’s evidence session last month, the provision in question is too vague to scrutinise without a clear definition of good governance alongside it. In the absence of a proper definition of good governance in the bill, it is not clear when and how sanctions will be used.

To his credit, the cabinet secretary has sought to reassure the committee by commissioning a code of good governance, but I understand that that code will not be available to scrutinise until after the bill has passed through the Education and Culture Committee, on the understanding that a further bill will be produced in 18 months’ to two years’ time. It seems to me that the calls for a delay seem very sensible in view of the fact that the code of governance will not be produced soon and things will not be ready in time.

As a result, concerns have been voiced across the sector. Alan Simpson from the University of Stirling said:

“we envisage a future minister being able to impose things that may not relate to the new code ... because there is no reference to a particular code in the bill.”—[Official Report, Education and Culture Committee, 19 February 2013; c 2015.]

That sentiment has been echoed by Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who said:

“it is not yet clear what particular principles of good governance might be enforced by the legislation. Moreover, the fear has arisen that the provision could be used to apply some other unspecified set of principles of good governance, or might even at some future date be used to apply the views of particular politicians or officials.”

As I have put to the cabinet secretary previously, I would like to see gender quotas provided for in primary legislation. I would like us to enshrine in statute a student’s right to choose their governing body, and I believe that it would be progressive to enshrine the election of academic boards in our law. I think that the bill that is before us represents a good opportunity to do that.

As many of the cabinet secretary’s front-bench colleagues have told us, there is a great deal of pressure on the legislative programme in the current parliamentary session, so there might not be room for his second bill. Why does he not take the opportunity to legislate on those matters now?

Even if the cabinet secretary is unwilling to take those steps, I urge him to consider the concerns of the committee and stakeholders, and those that have been expressed during the debate, and to give us some clarity on what governance reforms he will commit to.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

As far as I can see, there has been a pretty widespread welcome for the majority of the reforms that are laid out in the bill. It is clear that the universities and the colleges are hugely important to Scotland and our people, especially our young people.

The main points of the bill are to do with governance and organisation. I am particularly interested in the colleges, as they play a key role in the east end of Glasgow and other needy parts of the country, especially among those who are most marginalised. Of course, the universities are important, too, and many of us have benefited from free university education—in my case, at the University of Glasgow. There is a balance to be struck between universities and colleges.

There is also a balance to be struck between making cost savings and avoiding duplication, which larger organisations can often do, and keeping close to neighbourhoods and having close-knit community involvement, which smaller organisations can do.

When I moved to Barlanark in the early 1990s, John Wheatley College did not have a great name, and local students would often travel further afield to attend an institution with a stronger reputation. That situation has changed dramatically, and John Wheatley College now has a very good reputation in the city and beyond. In particular, it has a strong reputation for engaging with the local community and drawing in people who might otherwise be cast adrift by society.

As a result, I was concerned when I first heard of this idea of mergers and regionalisation. Would it mean weaker links with local communities? That issue is touched on in paragraph 124 of the committee’s stage 1 report. Moreover, given that the universities were all over the papers with poor governance issues, why was it the colleges that were being reorganised?

I have to say that my concerns have been allayed to some degree. The three colleges in my area—John Wheatley, North Glasgow and Stow—have thrown themselves into merger talks with some enthusiasm and I believe that the story is similar in the south and west of Glasgow with Langside, Cardonald and Anniesland colleges. The merger consultation document, which is out for comment, very much emphasises the opportunities.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I know that Mr Mason will have discussed this with the colleges but is he aware of the number of courses that have been cut as a result of the merger process?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

There is some doubt about the cutting of courses—some courses have been renamed and new courses that have been introduced have not been taken into account—but I will leave that for others to deal with in a bit more detail.

Before that intervention, I was going to quote from the merger consultation document from John Wheatley, North Glasgow and Stow colleges, which states:

“The scale of the social and economic challenges we face in this part of Glasgow is different; New College is designed to meet them. Building on our past, but looking to the future, our merger offers the potential for a college that is distinctive and special. This proposal sets out how we shall make that happen.”

If members allow, I will dwell on the Glasgow situation a little bit more. We are heading towards a region with three assigned colleges, two of which will have multiple campuses away from the city centre, including in some of our most challenging areas. The other—the City of Glasgow College—is in the city centre and draws not only from all over and beyond Glasgow but internationally.

The colleges appear to be quite different animals and I am glad that, in Glasgow, there will be a regional approach with three distinct colleges. It will be a challenge for the regional board to balance the different requirements and to avoid one part dominating the others. I am glad that the Education and Culture Committee has examined the issue in paragraphs 133 to 144 of its report, and I especially agree with its recommendation in paragraph 141.

I hope that in practice there will be not only a good working relationship between the colleges but a fair degree of autonomy and subsidiarity. For example, John Wheatley College currently has two campuses, one in Easterhouse and the other in Haghill, to encourage as many students as possible to participate; even more locally, classes are run in the community itself. Some folk already travel from, say, the east end of the city to specialist courses in Clydebank or Motherwell, but doing that incurs travel and childcare costs. Indeed, that very issue is touched on in the Unison submission that members received for today’s debate; I did not agree with all of the union’s comments, but it made good points both on this matter and on the problem of territorialism.

I am not saying that we should accept the issue in the longer term in Glasgow, and I acknowledge that good work is being done to tackle it. However, if we want to engage as many people as possible and draw in those who are furthest from employment, we need to make college provision as local as we can. We need to strike a balance, but I am not saying that that will be easy.

Overall, I believe that the bill brings about a major change in the organisation of our universities and especially our colleges. I note the openness to amendments at stage 2 and look forward to seeing them.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

This has been a very good debate.

In her speech, Clare Adamson asked us to assess the stage 1 process against the criteria that the Government initially set out. If I remember correctly, she said that those criteria are whether the bill provides better support for jobs and economic growth, whether it improves students’ life chances and whether it fundamentally changes the provision of skills to link with demands in local communities. Those are important questions for the chamber.

The Scottish Conservatives have taken the process seriously and have listened very carefully to the views of a range of stakeholders right across the college and university sectors on how they see the bill in relation to those specific objectives. As the committee convener and Liam McArthur have both rightly pointed out—and as the committee report makes clear—there is no particular objection to the overall policy direction, with the very considerable exception of the increase in ministerial powers, about which there is genuine concern.

The greatest difficulty with the bill lies in the detail and, on that basis, people have come to doubt whether it is the most effective way of achieving the objectives that have been set out. Indeed, that feeling has been heightened by the Government, which almost every time it talks about colleges and universities says that they are already delivering the valuable skills training our young people and mature students need and are already beginning to take substantial steps to widen access and tackle youth unemployment.

Given that the policy memorandum and financial memorandum do not provide sufficient evidence on why the bill, as opposed to other measures, will improve education in our colleges and universities, it is important that all of us, including the cabinet secretary, reflect on that point as we move towards stage 2. The Scottish Government has argued that the bill is necessary because of the technical and administrative underpinning that it will give to the reforms of colleges and universities. That may be correct up to a point, but I certainly do not think that we need a bill of such ungainly size, whose considerable lack of clarity has muddled matters.

On the question of college structures, which is the main focus of the bill, the committee received a substantial degree of evidence that the regional boards are a new layer of governance and that there is still some doubt as to how the funding mechanism will work or what the lines of accountability will be for meeting the financial requirements of the assigned colleges.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Does the member agree, though, that it is better to have three separate colleges in Glasgow rather than pile them all into one?

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I entirely agree with what the member said about the need for diversity, but we can have that diversity only if we are absolutely clear about the lines of accountability. On that basis, the bill falls seriously short. Even the Scottish funding council seems a little unclear as to how, within a regional plan, it will appropriately apportion funds to the assigned colleges.

In that context, I ask the cabinet secretary to consider carefully the small doubt that exists about one aspect of charitable status, which relates to situations in which the trustees of a college—which, obviously, would be defined as a charity in this context—do not agree with the direction of travel being implemented by the Scottish Government and the Scottish funding council. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator has given a ruling that seems encouraging, but there is still a small area of doubt.

Secondly, universities and colleges have raised concerns about the powers that are to be vested in the Scottish funding council to review the number of post-16 institutions and the learning and teaching that they provide. Those concerns are very much at the centre of the wider perspective about excessive Government involvement in the further education sector, just as there were concerns expressed about Government meddling in the management and governance of universities.

I was pleased by the cabinet secretary’s response to Mary Scanlon’s question about UHI. In the case of UHI, which is obviously an exceedingly important institution given the local dimension of its delivery in many rural and remote communities, we need some clarification.

In addition to those points, there is the problem of timescales. The Scottish Government is asking us to weigh up whether the legislation is needed to improve university governance, and yet the code for that new governance, which is being drawn up by the steering committee that was appointed by the university chairs, will not be available until—if I am not mistaken—9 April. Until that time, we are left without the substantial information on which we are being asked to decide whether we need the legislation. We need that information to know whether what is currently in place would be better than what might be provided under the bill.

Let me finish on the issue of widening access, on which Marco Biagi made a very thoughtful contribution. In fact, I thought that Marco Biagi made the case for not legislating on widening access. He correctly pointed out that the University of Edinburgh and several other institutions have made widening access a key issue without the need for legislation. We should accept that some of the focus is required in schools rather than in colleges and universities.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

No, the member must finish.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Otherwise, I would have taken Marco Biagi’s intervention.

In closing, let me say that the bill lacks an awful lot of necessary clarity and we are not persuaded that it will actually deliver better education, which is the most important thing.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

There are undoubtedly times in a parliamentary process when issues of political difference need to come to the fore and when the different political parties can argue about their respective policies as they try to show the weakness in the cases put by the other parties. There are also times when we are required to do our job as parliamentarians and when we need to consider our responsibilities not just to the people we represent but to Parliament as an institution in holding Government to account.

When I was convener of the Public Audit Committee, there were a number of occasions when I was extremely critical of events that had happened when I was a minister in the previous Administration, because that was the right thing to do when the evidence presented itself. I took my responsibility as a member of that committee seriously. This is an occasion when we need to reflect on the role of committees on behalf of Parliament.

The Education and Culture Committee has attempted, within certain limits, to do a job on behalf of Parliament. The role of committees is to scrutinise, comment and criticise in cases where things are not as they should be. Unfortunately, we can perceive a weakness in the Scottish Parliament if we compare ourselves with what happens at Westminster. We have taken pride and delight at times in criticising the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of what happens there, yet in Westminster we see the robustness of the reports published by committees that are led by members of different political parties, who are prepared to stand up to the Government of the day and tell the facts as they really are. There are times when we need committees of this Parliament to do exactly that job. The scrutiny of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill is one of those times when we need the committees of the Parliament to stand up and tell the Government where our concerns lie.

We do not disagree with the fundamental principles that have been outlined by the cabinet secretary. We do not disagree with the need to widen access. I do not disagree with the need to widen governance. When I was a committee convener, George Foulkes and I criticised the membership of college boards on a number of occasions, and we highlighted how complicit and cosy some of them were in relation to college principals, because that was the right thing to do. Some of our concern is reflected in comments that the cabinet secretary and others have made. On a number of occasions, George Foulkes and I criticised the unseemly way in which university principals had hiked their pay at a time when the pay and conditions of many members of their staff were being severely constrained. There are times when we need to tell things as they are.

Our concerns do not lie with the principles and doing the right thing—we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the cabinet secretary in trying to effect improvements where they are necessary. Our concern is about the detail of the bill. Time after time, the evidence from witnesses has shown that there are flaws and concerns with it. That does not mean ditching the bill and its never seeing the light of day again. We are saying that we should take our time to get the legislation right and ensure that it is effective. While we are arguing about that, let us use the powers that we have that do not require legislation, including those in areas such as widening access, as Liz Smith and other members have mentioned.

The debate is about a parliamentary process, not the rights and wrongs of a bill. As I have said, I agree on issues of governance and widening access. Stewart Maxwell said that Parliament should not be overtimid in its approach. That is right—but the committees of the Parliament should not be overtimid in their willingness to hold the Government of the day to account.

Photo of Stewart Maxwell Stewart Maxwell Scottish National Party

I am interested in what the member is saying, and I am trying to understand his point. Is he criticising the Education and Culture Committee’s report? I firmly believe that its report is fair and balanced, that it takes into account all the evidence that was supplied and that it takes into account both the support for the bill and some of the strong criticisms of the bill. We have done a good job in expressing all that fairly and in a balanced manner.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I did not criticise the report—if Stewart Maxwell had listened to me, he would have heard that. Where I have a difference is on the conclusion that Stewart Maxwell and the other SNP members drew in saying that the report represents support for the bill, when the evidence in the report demonstrates that that support is not there. That is where there is a need to stand up and be counted.

As Liz Smith said, the bill lacks clarity. Stewart Maxwell used the word “clarity”. If he went back to the report, he would find that word used time after time. Indeed, the report says that “greater clarity” on the bill is required. That is why we think that more work needs to be done.

George Adam gave yet another interesting history of his family. Some of the things that he said absolutely give the reason why action needs to be taken to widen access. However, that does not mean that the bill is good or that the measures in it are the right ones at this time. It does not mean that the Government should not pause and reflect on what needs to be done.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

The member says that the bill is basically good and has good intentions and that he has no criticism of certain aspects of it. We have heard about the aspects that he has criticisms of—I do not necessarily disagree with them—but what would the member say is good about the bill?

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

Actually, I did not say that it is a good bill; I said that the intentions and principles are good, but I share Liz Smith’s and Liam McArthur’s concerns that the bill is bad and is flawed. It is badly constructed.

We need to put in efforts to widen access. As Liz Smith said—and to repeat—we do not necessarily need legislation but, if legislation can help, by all means let us have it. If we need legislation to improve the gender balance, as Jenny Marra talked about, or to widen involvement for trade union members, by all means let us have it.

There are issues on which more work needs to be done, but the problem is that the bill as it stands has not been well constructed and all the criticisms and concerns that have been expressed have not been answered. I do not want to put the bill into the dustbin of history. However, Scottish Labour believes that, because the criticisms in the Education and Culture Committee’s report are so substantial, the cabinet secretary is required to go away, reflect and come back to us with something that is more fit for purpose.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I agree with Mary Scanlon—sorry, I mean Liz Smith. I nearly always agree with Mary Scanlon, although not today. I agree with Liz Smith that, by and large, the debate has been productive. I disagree with a great deal that has been said in it—I will come on to that in a moment—but the debate has been interesting. I thank the Education and Culture Committee and its convener for their work and I welcome the convener’s speech. He and other members will be aware that I have responded today to the committee’s stage 1 report in some detail. Some of the questions that members from across the chamber have raised will be addressed in that detail.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I had hoped that the mood of the debate would continue and that I would not be hectored by Mr Findlay. Let us hope that that will happen.

Actually, I was going to address one point that Mr Findlay raised. He raised a range of questions that he said I have not answered. The committee convener fairly pointed out my comment in the Official Report when I said that I recognised those questions but Mr Findlay had not asked me them. If he wants to ask me them again, I will answer them, but at an appropriate time.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No—I will answer them at an appropriate time. I have lots to say and I want to make progress. However, I will answer one of those questions now, which is about the code. The member claimed that he knows nothing about the code; that there is nothing about it in the bill; and that, on that basis, the bill cannot proceed. He should know that the code development has continued apace. For example, I met Lord Smith, who has chaired the steering group, again yesterday. The group has had 18 meetings and has consulted 350 people. I believe that Lord Smith will come to the committee to talk about the code.

Indeed, the code is not referred to in the bill and I made that point earlier.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I really have to make progress. I am sorry, but I have hardly any time.

Section 2 of the bill says:

“2 Higher education institutions: good governance

After section 9 of the 2005 Act insert—

‘9A Higher education institutions: good governance

The Scottish Ministers may, under section 9(2), impose a condition that the Council must, when making a payment to a higher education institution under section 12(1), require the institution to comply with any principles of governance or management which appear to the Scottish Ministers to constitute good practice in relation to higher education institutions.’”

That is clear. The code is not referred to. A code already exists and it is observed. If there is to be a new code, I am delighted that the Education and Culture Committee will look at it. However, it is not referred to in the bill and it is not part of the bill, and that is very important. The UCU made the argument that it should be in the bill and the committee members could lodge an amendment to that effect.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

However, I have to make a point about governance and management, and I suspect that that is the point that Liz Smith would like to make. The phrase “governance and management” to which she took such enormous exception is a phrase from the 2005 act’s fundable bodies criteria. If Liz Smith speaks to Mary Scanlon, who is sitting next to her, she will find that Mary Scanlon voted for the 2005 act with those very words in it. If there is a requirement to change those words, I will be sympathetic to that change.

Some members have said, in essence, that the bill’s policy aims and objectives are correct. Mr Bibby and Mr Henry said it, but of course they cannot vote for the bill. Mr Henry mentioned Westminster and there is an old Westminster convention that the vote follows the voice. Stage 1 is about the general principles of the bill. In response to Margo MacDonald, Mr Henry said that the principles of the bill are good—those are the very words that he used—so, if the principles are correct, he must vote for the bill. In the circumstances, those who listed what is good about the bill but then said that they could never vote for it are in a strange position indeed.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

No, I am sorry but I will not take any interventions at this stage, especially not from Jenny Marra because she said things that were not true. I hope that she will look at what she said, realise that she made a mistake and come back to correct the record. The code will be available in April and other members said that.

I have talked several times about an underpinning statute, which is why Ferdinand von Prondzynski replied in the way that he did. He knows that and other members know it, too.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I take it that Mr Russell is giving way for age rather than for beauty.

If the minister accepts that there are flaws in the bill and the Opposition says that the bill’s intention is good, will he undertake to take out the parts that most of the Opposition agrees should be taken out because they are details, which need to be taken out of the bill?

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

As ever, I am glad that I took Margo MacDonald’s intervention because she talks good sense. I said at the beginning and say again now that I am happy to discuss amendments and improvements to the bill. I suppose that I am done for if I do and done for if I don’t. When I said that at the beginning, Mr Findlay and Mr Pentland seized upon what I had said and said that I was making a desperate attempt to get the bill through. I make the commitment to members that I am keen that we make a collaborative attempt to ensure that the bill passes. That is the heart of the matter and I want members to reflect on that.

If the bill does not pass, certain things will happen. We will not get better governance or wider access; I will talk about those points in a moment. That would be very serious indeed, but that is what we are talking about. Mr Henry said in his speech that the bill is a wonderful idea, although he said at times that he is not sure that it is needed. He does not disagree with any of it but he will not back it—I am afraid that that will not wash, because no bill that comes to the Parliament is perfect. That is why we have a clear process for legislation, which allows for the improvement of bills at every stage.

The legislation process was agreed by all parties when the Parliament was established and it should be known to every member in the chamber. Members talk about a bill being withdrawn or not proceeding, or something similar happening, but that is not in the process. The procedure says that the Parliament either agrees or disagrees with the general principles of the bill and that is where we are today. What would be achieved if the bill were to be withdrawn? Nothing at all. We cannot achieve anything if there is no bill. Only amendment and progress can change the bill, yet those members who oppose it do not want to amend it and do not want it to progress.

We have heard the committee’s intention to take evidence about the code, so if that is the reason for members not supporting the bill, members know that there will be evidence at stage 2, which is possible under the process. Labour members need to remember that further delay would simply mean that the positive proposals in the bill would fail to take effect because the final stage of the bill’s progress would not take place according to the timetable that has already been agreed. Wider access, better governance, more focus on employability, essential improvements in data quality, and regionalisation would not happen. That is clearly, alas, what the Tories want. The sad reality—unfortunately I have become convinced of this today and I was getting convinced of it anyway—is that the Tories do not want the type of open access that there should be in Scotland.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

I am sorry, I have to finish—I do not have the time. The member has had her say and I want to have my say now. That view of education is an elitist one; it is one that refuses to take the next step. [Laughter.] I am coming to Labour in a moment. I hope that Labour members will be ready for it.

That view insists that universities and colleges cannot change and cannot improve. South of the border, the Tories have been the wreckers of higher education. If they are followed today, they intend to try and wreck it north of the border with fees, more barriers for poorer students, and no change to the unaccountable system of college governance that was put in place by Margaret Thatcher. No one in Scotland will be surprised that those are the Tory attitudes. The surprise will be that Labour will back them.

There was a glimmer of hope in the Lib Dems’ position—that is not referring to Mr Rennie, who is always a glimmer of hope. Mr McArthur said that he required to be persuaded. Let me persuade him of one thing: we are open to serious amendment. If he comes forward with good ideas, we will certainly look at them. There could be a collaborative process of change and I would welcome that.

The position of the Labour Party is the most extraordinary one. I care a lot about Scottish education; I care about widening access and I care about employability. People do not have to believe in an independent Scotland to see that those issues are important. The vast majority of Labour voters believe that, too. They believe in good education, creating employment opportunities, accountability, and a single national set of terms and conditions. They believe in the general principles and the particular policies in the bill.

The NUS and the UCU have pleaded with Labour to back the bill and now the moment of choice has arrived.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Labour cannot wriggle out of it again by abstaining. It cannot abstain on the issue of widening access. It cannot abstain on the issue of employment. [Interruption.]

Photo of Tricia Marwick Tricia Marwick None

One moment, cabinet secretary. Mr Findlay, I will not have you shouting across the chamber. You have chuntered along and some of the remarks that you have been making are completely unacceptable.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

Labour cannot abstain on issues of better governance. There is a choice between good and bad, and that choice means making the good and necessary step of backing the bill. That is the key decision for the Labour Party today: will it address that issue? Will it put behind it last week’s fence-sitting extravaganza? Will it ignore the fatal political miscalculation of the Labour front-bench members, which has led Labour to this? Will it choose the good move rather than the bad one?

I hear Jenny Marra laughing at the prospect of wider access to education. That is a disgrace. Labour has a choice to make in a minute or so—will it let down the lecturers, the support staff, and above all the students, just as it did when it abstained on tuition fees? It is time to make that choice and that choice will tell us a lot about what Labour is today.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on stage 1 of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.