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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Colleges are critically important institutions that provide vocational education and improve employability. I know that the college in my area, West College Scotland, works with local employers to improve its offer.
The reorganisation of Scotland’s colleges has been one of the few public sector reforms that the Scottish National Party Government has undertaken. The investigations by the Public Audit Committee into North Glasgow College and Coatbridge College have shown that the SNP Government’s handling of the reorganisations has not really done it credit.
Towards the end of last year, the ElS conducted a survey of members on the mergers and, frankly, the results were damning: 89 per cent of respondents did not believe that their merger improved learning or teaching quality; 94 per cent did not believe that their merger improved staff morale in the college; 86 per cent did not believe that their merged college better meets the needs of their local communities; and 81 per cent indicated that their workload has increased following their college’s merger. That is not a pretty picture. In fact, one could describe it as a truly damning assessment from staff on the front line experiencing the SNP’s reforms to our colleges.
Last year, the First Minister asked to be judged on her Government’s record. Frankly, on further education, that record is not one to be proud of. Since the SNP came to power, the number of college students has reduced by 152,000. We in the Parliament know that the SNP Government has deprioritised our colleges in terms of funding, but it will sicken people across Scotland to see how members of senior management, such as the former principal at Coatbridge College, played the system to get a golden goodbye. I believe that the former principal should return the chunk of his pay-off that was in excess of college guidelines. To do otherwise would be a slap in the face for staff across the sector.
I know that the cabinet secretary agrees with that, but I hope that the SNP Government considers how the loopholes that were abused can be closed and what action it can take to prevent that from ever happening again. What role should the funding council play? Was the SNP cabinet secretary at the time aware of what was going on and, if not, why not? There also needs to be an acceptance that the mergers have been incredibly damaging to further education in Scotland.
Analysis of responses to freedom of information requests that were submitted by the Scottish Labour Party shows that nearly 3,500 college staff have been made redundant since 2007 and that the cost of shedding staff from our colleges has been a staggering £90 million. Meanwhile, NUS Scotland has said that student support in further education is not fit for purpose. If we want to do something for students who access colleges, including the most disadvantaged students, it is essential that we increase the support that they receive.
To me, that all reads like a shopping list of failure on the part of the Scottish Government. It is the Government that created the circumstances that allowed people such as John Doyle to feather their nests. That should act as a wake-up call. The First Minister has said that education will be the “driving and defining” issue for her Government. That should apply to all forms of education, and the Government should learn the lessons that the scandal of Coatbridge College has to teach us.
The public outrage is about more than a bureaucrat playing the system to line his pockets; it is about the fact that he did so while in charge of a college in one of the most deprived parts of Scotland—a college that for generations had been a ladder out of disadvantage—and while the SNP has taken an axe to further education budgets. Under the SNP in 2016, students lose out while bureaucrats rake it in. It is not fair, it is not right and it makes a mockery of the SNP’s statement that education is its priority.