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Colleges

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

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Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Once again, I want to reinforce how important the work of Audit Scotland is in helping us to focus on the actions that we can and should take. When I was first elected to Parliament, one of my tasks was to chair the Scottish Commission for Public Audit, which is in charge of auditing Audit Scotland, so I am well acquainted with the good and thorough work that Audit Scotland undertakes on behalf of us all.

I pay tribute to the Public Audit Committee. At the start of the debate, we heard from Mr Martin, who spoke of the 18 hours of oral evidence and the 34 witnesses, of whom I was one, as well as the task for the committee in going through such a volume of evidence.

It is right that college governance has faced considerable scrutiny. We must understand the detail of what happened to ensure that there is no repetition. I want to assure members, not just on the Public Audit Committee but throughout Parliament, that the recommendations in the committee’s report and from the Auditor General are all being actively pursued.

As is often the case with debates on further education, this debate has touched on the pros and cons of the reform programme and the outcomes for young people and other learners. James Kelly, Patricia Ferguson and Jackie Baillie have all referred to that. This Government has more than met its manifesto commitment to maintain full-time equivalent provision and I will accurately maintain that we are spending more in cash terms than our predecessors; we have also invested more in capital. I also point to the fact that student support is at a record high and that the number of full-time students over and under 25 is increasing.

However, for me the crux of the matter in college reform is that it is the right thing to do to have more full-time students studying recognised qualifications that relate to the skills needed for work and for our local and national economy. I remain of that view. I have spent much of my time as a minister looking at youth unemployment. What we, as a Parliament and as a country, have failed to do has been to tackle structural youth unemployment at times of economic growth and increasing budgets. The reform of the college programme is absolutely essential in order finally to get to grips with structural youth unemployment in this country. I remain absolutely committed to the college sector in terms of what it can deliver, not just for older learners but to the aim of tackling structural youth unemployment.

According to the Auditor General, in her evidence on 4 November last year, the failures of governance at Coatbridge College occurred because of the actions of a small number of people. Although that does not abdicate me, the funding council or anybody else in this chamber from our responsibilities, we should remember that, at the centre of this, was a small number of people—people who ignored guidance. As we have heard from Mr Kelly and others, we had a situation in which the chair of a college board was also the chair of a remuneration committee. I would say to Mr Griffin that my task group is very interested in that issue. When the funding council said, “Don’t do it. Don’t pay the money”, it was ignored.

I reassure members that I agree with the funding council’s assessment that it could have been more proactive. I went to a recent board meeting of the funding council to communicate that, and I have also communicated it through the recently published guidance letter. I do not want anybody in this chamber to be in any doubt that I will take whatever action is necessary to prevent or deal with poor governance. I think that my actions to date have demonstrated that.

It is imperative that we learn the lessons, and that the appalling circumstances so eloquently outlined by a range of members in the chamber today do not happen again.