Phase 1 of the enterprise and skills review recommended the creation of a new single strategic Scotland-wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council. Our intention is that, once established, the overarching board will replace individual agency boards while retaining the separate legal status of each of the bodies.
The cabinet secretary must be aware of concerns in the higher education sector that autonomy will be compromised if the Scottish funding council goes the way that he has just described. Last night, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science assured Universities Scotland that it should not worry and that she understood the importance of the institutions’ autonomy. However, I think that they will find those two statements to be entirely contradictory. Will the cabinet secretary think again? Will he maintain the Scottish funding council and thereby the autonomy of our higher education institutions?
The autonomy of the higher education institutions is derived from the status of the higher education institutions. There is total consistency between the answer that I just gave Parliament and the statement that was made by the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science at the Universities Scotland event last night.
Of course I am aware of the unease within the universities—I read the newspapers and watch BBC Scotland. However, I am also absolutely determined that our university sector will be an autonomous sector that is able to exercise the same academic independence that it has today. We have to handle with great care the issues in connection with the board of the Scottish funding council in order to ensure that we can protect the independence of the university sector and guarantee that there is no reason for the sector to have the concerns that it currently has.
In terms of what the minister said last night, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments today about preserving the autonomy of our higher education institutions, which was such an issue in the previous session of Parliament.
That reassurance notwithstanding, when it comes to phase 2, the real concern is that the new board will potentially be chaired by a minister. That is where the concern about the issue of autonomy arises in phase 2. Can the cabinet secretary rule out any circumstance in which there will be Government control of the universities?
I am happy to rule out Government control of the universities. I can give that absolute cast-iron commitment to Parliament today: there will be no Government control of the universities.
On the issue of the arrangements around the exercise of phase 2, the Government will consult comprehensively around those questions. In its response to the publication of the enterprise and skills review, Universities Scotland said:
“Universities fully support the drive to increase Scotland’s productivity and inclusive economic growth and we believe that Scotland has the assets we need in our research base ... We totally agree that Scotland must take a ‘no-wrong-door’ approach to businesses, public and third sector organisations”.
Universities Scotland went on to say that it looks forward to close engagement in phase 2 of the enterprise and skills review, and that is exactly what the Government will deliver.