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Colleges

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

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Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

In her opening speech, the cabinet secretary was quite correct to say that this is a response to three serious reports. Stuart McMillan has eloquently explained again why the reports are so serious.

I am sure that the Auditor General, who is a senior figure in Scottish public life, would not have made the comment that she made—that it was one of the worst cases that she had ever seen in her time in the role—had it not been true. That alone one of the most important reasons why the Parliament must take the matter so seriously. I return to the fact that the Public Audit Committee of the Parliament has recognised that, and I compliment the convener and his committee once again on their handling of the issue. They have had to deal with thousands of different documents; as Stuart McMillan said, some were of such a serious nature that they had to be sent to OSCR and the police. It was no small task, and the committee has done excellent work, because it was clear that the audit trail simply did not exist. In fact, I believe that it has been an extraordinary state of affairs—I will come back to that in a minute, because how we react to it is important in how we take things forward.

There are, of course, issues to do with the Scottish funding council. It is clear that it had not done enough to uncover all the problems and to ensure that its important monitoring role was operating correctly. The Scottish funding council’s structures need to be looked at, as does its responsibility to the cabinet secretary. I think that it was James Kelly who made a good point about what good audit actually means. We have to be clear in our own minds about whether there are structural issues with the Scottish funding council and whether we need to make changes that could spread across how it looks at colleges and universities, or whether we feel that there have been some failures of leadership in that body too. What we decide on that will be crucial in how we react to the serious reports that have been put before us.

There are also issues to do with OSCR and whether it needs to have more measures at its disposal, should it feel that there has been malpractice. We need to think carefully about that, but I suggest that that should come after we have examined the funding council’s mechanism.

I mentioned in my opening speech that there are question marks over the tripartite relationship between the Scottish funding council, the Scottish Government and individual colleges, particularly in a merger process that has perhaps been necessary in many cases but which has certainly been controversial, particularly as the pace of reform was seriously questioned by many colleges. Some of them did not respond well, and Parliament must take that seriously.

The most important thing that we can do is restore trust, because that is the crucial word when it comes to our responsibilities to college students and staff, who feel badly let down. George Adam described the situation as a very “sorry saga”, and he was correct. We have a responsibility to students and staff to ensure that they can feel confident about their future.

I believe that the Public Audit Committee has gone a long way towards helping that process, but it will take robust action from both the Scottish Government and this Parliament to deliver on the committee’s recommendations. Specifically, I draw the chamber’s attention to paragraphs 296 and 301 of the committee’s report on Coatbridge College, in which the committee asks for consideration to be given to the future powers of both the SFC and OSCR. It is clear that it believes that those are central core issues to be discussed. Whether sanctions should be available to the SFC and whether there is an appropriate relationship at the base level between the funding council and the Scottish Government, as Tavish Scott mentioned, this is about lines of accountability, democracy and the transparency that we can provide to allow people to have trust in our college sector again.