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Colleges

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

As someone who studied at college before attending university, I have a huge amount to thank further education for.

I was happy to support the proposals for college mergers because I thought that they would introduce efficiencies into the college sector. I also thought that by removing layers of senior management we could ensure that more money would be invested in students. That is where the money should go. Members will notice that I used the word “invested”, rather than “spent”. Every penny that is invested in colleges should be an investment in people and in the future prosperity of the country.

I knew that the merger process would raise issues that would need to be addressed, and I knew that some bad apples would be found as mergers occurred. However, I was genuinely appalled by the arrogance of some people in the sector, who thought that they could use taxpayers’ money as well as college-earned income to top up their already substantial pension pots—and at a time of public constraint, when public sector workers were being offered a pay increase of 1 per cent.

The discovery of the information proves two things. First, the Government was right to change the college structure, to make it more accountable. Secondly, the greed is good attitude was unfortunately alive and well in a sector in which reform was long overdue.

Audit Scotland deserves a huge amount of credit for the reports that we are considering. The organisation exists not to curry favour with the Government of the day but to shed light on how the public pound is being spent. My former colleague Andrew Welsh could not speak too highly of Audit Scotland, because the thorough auditing of Scotland’s public finances did not take place before the re-establishment of this Parliament.

A speech of four minutes is short for a topic of this nature, so I will focus on the Coatbridge College audit. It is obvious that something has gone seriously wrong when a committee report quotes an Auditor General saying this:

“There is absolutely no doubt that there have been very serious failures of governance; indeed, they are among the most serious that I have seen during my time as Auditor General.”—[Official Report, Public Audit Committee, 9 September 2015; c 11.]

Liz Smith mentioned the Auditor General’s comment in her speech.

As members said, the Public Audit Committee decided to investigate the matter. I commend our report, which was published on 13 January, to anyone who has an interest in the matter. It was clear that the overall governance was not as it should have been. During our investigations, we asked for a timeline of events, so that we could try to clarify a somewhat cloudy situation. The timeline can be found in annex C of our report.

I never for one minute thought that my name would go on a parliamentary report that we would send to Police Scotland and to OSCR, the charity regulator, but it did—and we have sent the report to Police Scotland and OSCR, which was the least that the committee could do. Ultimately, when money over and above already budgeted-for and generous leaving packages leaves the college sector, that is nothing short of removing money from students’ pockets.

All members of the committee were shocked, disgusted and appalled by the actions of a few at the expense of many at Coatbridge College. Our report is clear on that. We made three recommendations. First, we recommended that Mr Doyle pay back the money, although we did not expect that to happen because no admittance of wrongdoing was forthcoming during the evidence sessions.

Our second recommendation concerned action for the Government. During this afternoon’s debate we heard from the cabinet secretary about progress in that regard, particularly in relation to the creation of the college good governance task group.

Our third recommendation concerned the Scottish funding council. I accept that there were limitations on the SFC at the time and that its remit has changed as a result of the college restructuring programme. However, the committee thought that the SFC could have been more forceful, could have deployed more scrutiny and could have been more attentive to what was going on. The SFC has questions to answer.

Audit Scotland uncovered, at best, bad practice, and at worst, financial chicanery. The Public Audit Committee has produced excellent reports, having obtained further detail on how bad things were. We have done our job. The next step is a strengthening of the rules, to ensure that Scotland’s students do not face such a financial hit at the hands of the few again.