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The Auditor General’s report “Scotland’s colleges 2015” confirmed that college finances were sound, that planning for mergers was good and that, overall, the sector had responded well to a period of significant change. That is important.
However, the reports on Coatbridge College and North Glasgow College highlighted that in both cases there was clear evidence of poor governance and lack of transparency—most particularly around severance payments. The negative findings were a considerable concern, so I welcomed the rigorous investigations that were undertaken by the Public Audit Committee, of which I am a member.
I would like to focus on the worst of the two cases—that of Coatbridge College, where incontrovertible evidence was found of deliberate deception and obfuscation by key players.
Over the years, I have been involved in many investigations, but I have rarely seen such a blatant and successful attempt to subvert normal processes and to seek an outcome that brought financial benefit to one person. Make no error: other staff benefited financially from the doubtful practices that were followed by the college, but none did to as great an extent as the college principal, Mr John Doyle, who pocketed more than £300,000 in cash. In part, that payment resulted in the college going into the red at the end of the financial year to the detriment of the students of that college, who otherwise would have enjoyed the benefit of that money being spent in support of their education.
The Public Audit Committee was unanimous in its condemnation of the practices that were followed by the college, and Mr Doyle should repay the money, which was obtained under false pretences, and settle for the same severance terms that other staff at the college enjoyed.
We would not be the Public Audit Committee if we did not seek to identify those who were responsible for what appears to have been misapplication of public moneys. Mr Doyle, as the principal, and Mr John Gray, as the chair, bear responsibility for serious failures in the governance of Coatbridge College. No system of supervision has yet been devised that will provide 100 per cent protection against deliberate and premeditated deception such as took place at Coatbridge College. It is astonishing, to say the least, that senior staff wilfully colluded to achieve a particular outcome, but I believe that that has been proved to be a fact in this case.
Could the Scottish funding council have done more? It is apparent that the SFC was not sufficiently prepared to manage the levels of deception and avarice that were evidenced. The SFC should have been aware that opportunistic individuals might take advantage of the fluid situation that was created as the merger process progressed. Clearer directions and firmer management of the overall merger process might have made a significant difference. As I have already stated, deliberate and intentional collusion in deception can be very hard to detect, at least initially, especially at senior level and when more than one senior individual is involved.
Could the Government have done more? Some people argue that closer oversight of the SFC might have been appropriate, and that the Scottish Government had too much confidence in the SFC and its ability to manage the merger process. However, micromanagement of the SFC would not have been expected, as the SFC’s role in the process seems to be clear and no regulator in the United Kingdom has Government officials closely monitoring its activities.
I am pleased that the committee’s report has resulted in the Government responding by the cabinet secretary setting up the college governance task force. The cabinet secretary has also confirmed that the Government will take full account of the committee’s recommendations.
We must all ensure that no such disgraceful event can happen again, and I am encouraged by the knowledge that, post-merger, such an event is highly unlikely, given the new governance structures, but the role of the SFC needs to be beefed up. In effect, the SFC is the regulator for the college sector. It must be fit for purpose, and its function must be clear and unequivocal.