– in the Scottish Parliament on 28th March 2023.
1. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on targeted counsellor funding for colleges and universities. (S6T-01299)
Since 2019-20, we have invested more than £13.5 million to provide almost 90 additional counsellors in colleges and universities. That exceeds our programme for government commitment to support the recruitment of 80 such posts. We are committed to meeting our programme for government commitment to provide additional funding for the entirety of the 2022-23 academic year. We are the only United Kingdom nation that is funding student counsellor provision in that way.
Last week, the Education, Children and Young People Committee published its report on college regionalisation, which found that targeted counsellor funding is critical for students. Has demand for mental health counselling increased over the four-year period in which dedicated funding for counsellors has been provided? How will future demand for such services be met if that financial support will not be available beyond the end of this academic year?
On Ms Gosal’s final point, we have committed to publishing a student mental health action plan, which will be forthcoming very shortly. We have not made a final decision on funding beyond the end of this year. We recognise the importance of the investment that we have made thus far, and we want to continue to support students through what we know has been a difficult and challenging time. Fundamentally, the mental health action plan will seek to continue our response to that.
We already know that some colleges will be making drastic reductions in response to the Scottish National Party’s funding settlement. One college is planning for staff redundancies at a rate of up to 25 per cent over the next few years. That situation is not unique. Twenty-one college principals have written to the Scottish Government to plead for help. Such counsellors can provide a life-saving service for many students who struggle with their mental health. Following those pleas, will the minister set out the Government’s position on compulsory redundancies and ensure that all college students can access the services that they need?
I am aware of the letter from the 21 college principals. As members would expect, the Government will, of course, reply to that letter. There has been very close contact with college principals to discuss the issues that we are touching on today. I have made it as clear to them as I am making it to Ms Gosal that we are committed to publishing a student mental health action plan, and I have said what we might be able to do in subsequent years.
In relation to funding, we have leveraged in additional resources for colleges for the coming year.
I respectfully say to Ms Gosal that it is not good enough to call for additional funding—as she does week in, week out—for not just the college sector but virtually every sector that involves Government expenditure, without identifying where the money should come from, so I look forward to hearing her say where the money will come from.
As members might expect, there is a lot of interest, so I ask for concise questions and responses to enable more members to take part.
It is my understanding that since 2019-20, the Scottish Government has invested in almost 90 additional counsellors in colleges and universities. Some of those institutions are private organisations and have their own role to play in ensuring that there is provision for the wellbeing of their students.
Can the minister say something about how the work of those professionals, including those who are provided through Government funding, will complement the work of the upcoming student mental health plan?
Kaukab Stewart makes an important point—she is right to identify that the institutions for which we are providing funding have a fundamental core responsibility in that regard. They themselves have to ensure that they are adequately responding to and supporting their students’ mental health needs.
We have assisted with that by providing a substantial package of funding to universities and colleges, and providing additional funding to support the recruitment of those counsellors. Through our student mental health action plan, we will seek to build on that to ensure that we support the resilience and mental wellbeing of students across the country.
We know that 128,000 people have signed a petition to the United Kingdom Government calling for the creation of a statutory legal duty of care for students in higher education. A duty of care already exists for staff and for students who are under 18. Would the minister explore the idea of introducing a statutory legal duty of care for students in colleges and universities?
I cannot say in earnest that it will be me who will be doing that, but the Government should reflect on that matter.
The minister said that no final decision has been made about future funding, which is a little bit more positive, but it leaves those staff in limbo. I hope that the minister will act with a little bit more haste and make a quicker decision on that, because the mental health counsellors have provided an invaluable service for vulnerable students across the college and university sector. How much longer will they have to wait?
I understand the point that Mr Rennie makes, and I take it seriously, because we have to try to provide that clarity. He will understand that we have to go through the usual process, but we have made that commitment to the student mental health action plan, which will come forward very soon. In my view, we should not disaggregate these issues too much, but I take on board his point that we need to provide institutions with clarity as soon as possible.
The health and wellbeing census shows that for many young people, challenges with their mental health begin at school, before college or university. Can the minister give an update on what progress has been made towards the Bute house agreement commitment that every young person has a right to access in-school mental health counselling if they require it? That should, one would hope, reduce the demand for college and university mental health support services.
That is a fair reminder that we have a duty to support the mental wellbeing of all young people in Scotland. We continue to provide £16 million to local authorities towards the commitment to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services.
Authorities across the country have confirmed that all schools have such access. Authorities provide the Scottish Government with six-monthly reports on those services, and the latest reports that we analysed showed that just over 14,500 young people accessed the services between January and June 2022, with more than 6,000 of them reporting improved outcomes. The majority of the remaining young people are still accessing the service and their outcomes are yet to be captured, but those will be reported in due course.