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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the Public Audit Committee’s debate on Scotland’s colleges. I pay tribute to the Auditor General, her staff at Audit Scotland and the convener, committee members and clerks for their dissection of the issue.
Context is important when we come to talk about this issue. Scotland’s colleges should be the envy of the world. Everyone, regardless of privilege or postcode, should be able to access the skills that they need in order to get on in life. Sadly, that is not happening. The Scottish Government’s record on colleges has been shambolic. As Jackie Baillie pointed out, the NUS says that support is not fit for purpose and the lecturers union says that the SNP’s mergers have not improved learning and teaching quality.
College mergers are one of the few public sector reforms that have been undertaken by the Government, and the programme has been a complete and utter failure for the 152,000 students who have been locked out of college courses, a large number of whom are women returning to work and other adult learners, as Patricia Ferguson said. The SNP should have spent its eight years in power investing in colleges, not making nearly 3,500 college staff redundant at a cost of more than £90 million.
As Stuart McMillan pointed out, the parliamentary report into a former college principal who is accused of accepting a “vastly excessive” severance payment has been passed to the police. That should shock everyone here. As Colin Beattie said, the Public Audit Committee has called on John Doyle, the former principal of Coatbridge College in North Lanarkshire to repay part of his £304,000 deal—a settlement that was described as an
“appalling abuse of the public purse”.
The report also criticised the Scottish funding council, which was responsible for overseeing the merger process.
Last summer, Auditor General Caroline Gardner issued a highly critical report on Mr Doyle’s severance deal. The committee agreed with Ms Gardner’s view that John Gray, the chair of the former college, colluded with Mr Doyle
“to get the result they wanted” by withholding relevant information from the college’s remuneration committee, which approved the payment. The committee’s report said:
“Given the significant governance and oversight failings ... the Scottish Government must look at the operation of the Scottish Funding Council and the effectiveness of its supervisory role.”
That is the context of where we are today.
The amounts that are involved and the failure to get to grips with the issue will stun people outside the chamber. However, how do we move forward? I think that an apology and repayment would be a good place to start, but I will not hold my breath. The Government has insisted that the college governance task group will review the circumstances that led us to this point. I appreciate the update on that that the cabinet secretary gave. I note that she did not want to pre-empt that review, but has she drafted new rules or regulations that would avoid such a circumstance arising again? Is there a blueprint in place for future public sector pay-off scenarios that could be used more widely? There was a blame game at the time, with the Scottish funding council, officials and politicians all scrambling to avoid taking the brunt of the criticism. Will there be a clear channel of responsibility for the size and nature of the packages after the review is complete?
I welcome the Public Audit Committee’s work in this area and commend the dogged approach that it has taken in seeking to shed light on the issue.
The Scottish Government must show that it has more of an appetite to try to correct the perceived injustices of the packages that were delivered in this case. The only thing that we can hope for is that we do not see a repeat of this shambles, because one thing that is clear is that, as Stuart McMillan, Colin Beattie and others have said, the money that has been paid in severance packages has come directly from funds that would have supported college students in my region and in my colleagues’ regions.