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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

When the Auditor General for Scotland says that this case was among the most serious failures of governance that she has ever seen in her time, the Scottish Parliament must not fail to take notice. Although I am also conscious of the difficult and sensitive issues, including the tragic death of a senior member of the college staff, it is important that Parliament ensures that all the facts come into the public domain and that it takes action to ensure that such a situation can never be repeated. On that point, I compliment the convener of the Public Audit Committee and his fellow committee members for the assiduous manner in which they have pursued the truth, often against the odds. They deserve great credit for the report that they have produced and I am sure that it will serve as a blueprint for the future.

At the time of college reform, there was general agreement that there was a need for some mergers and economies of scale, and that mergers should at all times be measured against the drive towards better educational outcomes and financial discipline. There was less agreement about the pace of reform and how it would be handled—especially whether we had the right relationship between the Scottish Government and the Scottish funding council. I remember several committee meetings in which that relationship was put under the spotlight, and I remember the cabinet secretary at the time being certain that the pace of change was appropriate.

The college sector, however, was split. Some colleges were very keen on the merger process while others were much less so—usually because they were worried about losing their autonomy and/or their ability to best serve the needs of a diverse local economy. Jackie Baillie referred to the EIS survey on that very issue.

We might have thought that, amidst all that, extra care would have been taken to provide maximum transparency and scrutiny of the merger process, and to allay the fears of people who were unsure about the new structures for governance. When large sums of public money are involved, it is paramount that institutions are fully accountable for their spending and how they make their decisions.

In the case of Coatbridge College, there was utter failure on several fronts. Although it was the worst example that the Auditor General saw, we should not assume an absence of failures in other colleges. The failures might not have been so comprehensive, but they exist, so it is to be hoped that those colleges also learn a great deal from this episode.

I have no wish to dwell on the specifics of the case because they have been well covered in recent months. For me, the worst aspect of the Coatbridge College culture was the deliberate collusion in some echelons of senior management to secure personal financial gain and the complete incompetence when it came to abiding by good practice in governance. All that was happening at a time when there was already significant concern about whether some public sector institutions were sufficiently honest and principled.

In Audit Scotland’s report “Scotland’s colleges 2015”, it was made clear that the external audit of Coatbridge College had not been completed at the time of publication because the auditor had experienced difficulties with getting the relevant information. Two months later, Audit Scotland published a press release alongside the presentation of its audit of Coatbridge College to the Scottish Parliament. In that, Audit Scotland highlighted the weaknesses in governance that had been uncovered, including the fact that severance payments exceeded the terms of the college’s severance scheme.

It then became clear that that was the tip of a very substantial iceberg that successfully sank every principle of good governance. There were no accurate minutes; in some cases, there were no minutes at all and in others the minutes were produced nine months later. There were examples of meetings that had no agendas and a complete absence of the appropriate lines of communication. Those are inexcusable failures—indeed, they are unbelievable. That any governing council could allow such a situation to persist is extraordinary as well as unacceptable.

Serious failings in senior levels of the Scottish funding council have also been uncovered. The committee’s report could hardly be blunter and I am sure that the Scottish Government and Parliament will want to reflect on it. It is important that we review what happened in the Coatbridge situation and whether the tripartite relationship between the Scottish Government, the Scottish funding council and individual colleges is the most appropriate when it comes to maximum transparency and financial probity. Whether the SFC is being asked to be judge and jury at the same time is surely an important question.

All this has had a human cost, the most tragic of which was the death of a member of staff. It has also had very serious effect on staff morale at a time when colleges are already facing huge pressures from financial cuts. Who can blame staff and students when they worry about the broader implications of the Coatbridge College issue? We need public confidence in our colleges and we need an assurance that the means by which they are governed are wholly watertight and in line with the very best practice that can be expected.

These are very serious matters and the Parliament cannot ignore them.