College Regionalisation

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 13 June 2023.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-09414, in the name of Sue Webber, on behalf of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, on college regionalisation. I invite those members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.

Photo of Sue Webber Sue Webber Conservative

I am delighted to open the debate on the committee’s inquiry into college regionalisation. I thank all those who shared their knowledge and experience with us, and, of course, my committee colleagues for their due diligence.

During the inquiry, the committee considered how colleges have been impacted by the regionalisation process and consequential mergers, and how they are performing now. The committee was very impressed by the work that has been done in and across our colleges. Those institutions are critical to the economic and social wellbeing of our economy; to the delivery of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy; to the development of a skilled workforce that is able to respond to new requirements and new opportunities in industries; to opportunities for people of all abilities to develop skills for life; and to successfully widening access to opportunities, including higher education.

The committee recognises that regionalisation has allowed colleges to have a stronger voice and a seat at the table when it comes to the economic development decisions in their region, and to develop much stronger relationships with schools and universities. It has also led to a more coherent curriculum across the region, which can aid learner pathways from school to higher education; to an increase in the number of students who receive full credit for their higher national certificates and higher national diplomas, should they wish to take a degree; and to the strengthening of student associations and student representation in college decision making.

However, the committee also found that colleges face a very challenging financial situation. On average, 70 per cent of college expenditure goes on staff. Given a restricted ability to generate other funds, colleges have forecast significant staff cuts over the next five years. Indeed, some have forecast cuts of up to 25 per cent. College principals also highlighted that, although the scale has increased, financial challenges are not new, with many describing the sector as being “chronically underfunded”.

The committee believes that the full potential of colleges is being curtailed by those significant and on-going financial pressures, as well as by a lack of flexibility to respond to the specific economic and societal requirements of their areas. The committee therefore recommended that the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council urgently give colleges as many financial and operational flexibilities as possible to help them deliver on the various strands of their work.

Given the importance of colleges and the depth of the challenges that they face, I have been greatly disappointed at the lateness of the Scottish Government’s response to our report. It was provided only yesterday, some three weeks late and leaving the committee only a day to prepare for the debate. In addition to its lateness, the response was light on content and on addressing some of the wide-ranging, cross-cutting recommendations that we presented. I also noted that, when it arrived, it explained that the Scottish Funding Council has given colleges some flexibilities when it comes to credit targets and to addressing some of their semi-fixed costs. I look forward to hearing more about that from the minister.

The committee was concerned to hear that, in 2017, a survey identified that one third of the college estate was neither wind nor watertight. Based on that survey, Audit Scotland found a £321 million shortfall in backlog and life-cycle maintenance across the estate since 2018-19. That

amount is just what is required to make the college estate wind and watertight; it does not cover what will be required to ensure that colleges meet their net zero commitment by the 2045 deadline.

Colleges, after all, are almost wholly dependent on the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council for capital investment. Although the committee recognises the financial constraints that the Scottish Government is working within, the Government and the Scottish Funding Council must acknowledge the college sector’s significant needs and urgently take action to ensure that more capital investment can be leveraged into it.

Although the cabinet secretary’s response said that there would be more flexibility for capital maintenance, the combination of the backlog and life-cycle maintenance means that the allocations are still some way short of what will be required, given the extent of the backlog. I note that the Scottish Government is working with the Scottish Funding Council with the intention of bringing forward the infrastructure investment plan, and I look forward to hearing more about that from the minister.

The committee heard about the strong partnerships that many colleges have with the businesses in their region, but we also heard that they need more flexibility to respond to the needs of students and businesses locally. The ability to develop their own qualifications, including microcredentials, is one such flexibility that we discussed. The committee asked the Scottish Government to consider what barriers are stopping colleges from developing qualifications, and how they might be removed, and I am looking forward to hearing the minister’s thoughts on that during his contribution.

A significant ambition of the college reforms has been the enhancement of the student voice to help make the college sector more learner centred. We were grateful to have student representatives join us in the Parliament to share their views and tell us about the successes and challenges that they face in their roles.

The committee was encouraged to learn that student associations have been strengthened as a result of the reforms, and that student association presidents have been supported to be part of discussions about the strategic direction of the college and the support available for students, and to influence key decisions by the board. However, the strength of that challenge can be tempered by the financing arrangements of student associations, with most dependent on their colleges for funding.

The committee recognises that many college student associations are working well, but we found that others might need strengthening, possibly through more secure financing or more time and training support for student officers. The committee wants college student associations to have real agency in order to offer robust challenge to their college boards and principals, so we have asked the Scottish Government to consider whether minimum standards should be set to ensure that associations have appropriate levels of funding and independence to protect their ability to challenge their boards. Again, I would be interested in hearing the minister’s view on that.

Colleges perform so many different functions, and we all need them to do so. In our report, the committee made it clear that, without increased investment or flexibility, the sector needs the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council to be clear about what colleges should be prioritising.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Education, Children and Young People Committee’s 2nd Report, 2023 (Session 6), College regionalisation inquiry (SP Paper 331).

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I thank the Education, Children and Young People Committee for its work on the report, and I apologise for the lateness of the Scottish Government’s response to it. It is a commendable piece of work—and I say that without a hint of bias. [



From the evidence amassed by the committee which, as a member of it at the time, I heard at first hand, as well as from the subsequent meetings that I have had across the college landscape as minister, it is clear that college regionalisation has delivered a number of benefits, which we need to capitalise on if we are to have a lifelong education and skills system that is fit for the future.

Our colleges play a unique role in the system. They deliver the broadest range of learning across almost the whole of the SQF framework. They work with our youngest and oldest learners, building confidence and helping people progress. They deliver learning across Scotland and partner with those in their communities, making the best use of their assets to improve outcomes in the areas that they serve. They can also play a central role in our economy by responding to the needs of employers and supporting improvement in earning potential and productivity in their regions, as well as contributing their expertise nationally and internationally. I firmly believe the sector has a bright future.

I say that, while acknowledging entirely the difficult financial climate that we are encountering at present. There are no easy choices or solutions to some of the challenges that the Government faces. Decisions have had to be made that I wish had not had to be made. In spite of those challenges, though, our commitment to colleges remains steadfast.

Despite severe financial pressures, we are, in our 2023-24 budget, continuing to invest in our colleges, which will enable them to continue to deliver high-quality education and training and to support the development of well-educated and highly skilled people who contribute to our economy and society. Later this month, I will be meeting the sector to consider—and, I hope, take forward—approaches that will help it secure sustainability in the face of the current pressures.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

What the minister has said is positive, but will he join me in appealing to the Educational Institute of Scotland not to boycott the marking of students’ papers at the end of the academic year, as it would leave so many students high and dry about their futures? Will the minister join me in appealing to the EIS not to use students as collateral in its industrial dispute with the employers?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am not sure how that fits with the points that I have just made. I would, of course, appeal to lecturers not to go down that road, but I also recognise their right to pursue industrial action as they see fit.

The on-going significance of colleges is at the heart of our future post-school learning landscape. The need to get the most out of our investment is an important finding of James Withers’s skills delivery review. Its report, which was published last week, sets out a compelling case for significant reform of the public sector landscape and its underpinning processes. Withers notes that his eyes have been opened to the broad and pivotal role of colleges in their regions, and I agree with his analysis. His recommendations call for simplification of funding and decision making to empower regional partners to respond to their diverse local economies. There is no doubt that regionalisation means that colleges are well positioned to take up that challenge.

I have already said that I find the case that James Withers has made for whole-system reform persuasive, but I also want to ensure that we consider the practicalities and consequences of his specific recommendations. Together with sectoral partners, and in the context of wider lifelong education and skills reform, that is what we will be doing. That is why over the summer I will be meeting and listening to key players in all of this, including colleges.

Let me be clear, however: we accept the broad direction set by James Withers. Like the cabinet secretary in her opening remarks in the debate on the national discussion for education, I am keen to engage constructively with the Opposition as we move the education reform agenda forward. That includes listening to ideas and reflections in the chamber and away from it on proposals, particularly those of Withers, to support Scotland's learners today and in the future.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I welcome what the minister has put on the record about the Withers review, which provides a very clear route map for the Government to undertake some very difficult, but necessary, work in this sector. I encourage the minister to foster a discussion with the Opposition that recognises some of the financial challenges that the Government faces. Withers offers a number of solutions to those challenges to ensure that provision can be delivered in a focused way that meets the needs of learners instead of meeting the needs of institutions. If that thinking underpins the cross-party discussion in response to Withers, we might be able to address the financial challenges and continue to deliver world-class skills and learning opportunities for students in Scotland.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

John Swinney sets a challenge for us all: we need to have a mature conversation about all of this. I assure him that I will certainly look to facilitate that.

The most telling indicator of any system is how satisfied its users are with the service that they receive. According to recent Scottish Funding Council statistics, there have been increases on the previous year in enrolments, head count and full-time-equivalent places, as well as increased numbers of those upskilling and reskilling on short courses, and increased opportunities for those who are furthest from the workplace. That shows that colleges are continuing to deliver the most appropriate offer throughout learners’ lives and are responding flexibly to the social and economic needs of the regions and communities that they serve.

The 2021-22 student satisfaction and engagement survey statistics showed that nine out of 10 full-time students were satisfied with their college experience, which is an increase on the figures for the previous year and a return to pre-pandemic levels. That speaks to the quality of the support that is being given to students.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Could the minister provide clarity on the position of mental health counsellors? His predecessor talked about bringing clarity through the student mental health action plan, but we have still not seen that. Some 48 mental health counsellors, plus the think positive staff, could be made redundant unless the Government acts. Will he give us some news about that?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The update is that the position is as it was when I last spoke to Mr Rennie on the subject: it remains a work in progress, and we are trying to resolve the issue. I do recognise the member’s points about the importance of such services.

I want to touch on the wider role of colleges. Scotland’s colleges not only deliver higher and further education, but play a key role in supporting their local schools. School and college partnerships are a vital component in young people’s learner journeys, supporting a wide range of positive educational outcomes that might not be achievable in the school setting alone. They support the school-based offer by providing a variety of opportunities for learners, including skills development in work-based settings, exposure to a variety of teaching and assessment methods and a wide range of qualifications and awards.

Scotland’s senior phase school learners are now undertaking a much wider range of courses than ever before, with more than 27 per cent of school leavers in 2021-22 gaining vocational and technical qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 5 or above, compared with just 7.3 per cent in 2013-14. Professor Louise Hayward, who is leading the independent review of qualifications and assessment in Scotland, has noted:

“School and College partnerships have become an increasingly positive feature of the educational landscape.”

We want to see such partnerships being strengthened and developed, so that will be a key feature of our programme of reform across the education and skills portfolio.

Another area in which we see examples of good practice is articulation between our colleges and universities. Although I recognise James Withers’s comments on the confusing landscape, colleges and universities are in many instances already working in partnership to create clear progression routes to higher levels of study, from traditional articulation models to integrated and partnership degrees. In 2021, 19.1 per cent of Scotland-domiciled degree entrants to university had achieved an HNC or HND in one of the three years prior to their entry. That approach supports our widening access ambitions and demonstrates the benefits of the pathways that are already in place across different parts of the post-school system and how they are delivering for learners.

Of course, more could be done. One thing that we have heard loud and clear is the need to make an individual’s learner journey as easy and simple as possible. We have also heard about the importance of good advice and signposting on such journeys. Clear articulation routes play a role in that, providing increased flexibility for learners and a choice of progression routes as they continue their journeys. There is more to be done to improve articulation pathways, but we are building on strong foundations.

Building on the importance of clear pathways and articulation opportunities—and a factor that is recognised in the committee’s report—is the need for good careers information, advice and guidance. Given the current labour market shortages, there has never been a more important time for advice and support to be given to all. That is a major theme in the skills delivery review.

Of course, we are not starting from scratch in that respect. Skills Development Scotland has already undertaken reviews of career services for young people in Scotland, and the careers collaborative that will implement the strategy will also help ensure that tailored support is available to all learners. I am also heartened by the approach that Colleges Scotland has taken to developing approaches that could best support college students. Taken together, the careers collaborative and the focus that Withers places on careers provide an important milestone for embedding careers within the fabric of our learning system. Colleges will continue to play an important role in providing such advice. I am particularly grateful to Grahame Smith for offering to return to the findings of the careers review in light of Withers, in order to consider how they might be aligned.

As James Withers has rightly identified, our colleges play a key role in our economy, working with small and medium-sized enterprise businesses, upskilling and reskilling, and fulfilling their civic roles as local anchor institutions. They have been instrumental in our economic recovery strategy following the pandemic and will be critical to our economic future in working to support delivery of the national strategy for economic transformation as we face the changes ahead.

Scotland’s colleges are vital in supporting the future careers and prosperity of our young people and our economy. I look forward to the debate and to working across the chamber, I hope, to support our colleges for learners today and in the future.

I will seek, in my closing speech, to respond to points that members make and update members on some of the specific issues that are noted in the report.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I have to say that I was amazed by the intervention from John Swinney. We would hardly imagine that he was in the upper echelons—the most senior positions in the Government—for 16 years. As a back bencher, he has suddenly realised what many of us have said for a very long time about the skills landscape in Scotland. I welcome his conversion.

I have had the privilege of sitting beside the minister when he was a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, and I think that he is sincere. I do not disagree with him about many aspects of his speech. I disagree with him on breaking up the United Kingdom, but I think that we have a lot more common ground that we can explore.

To be frank, the minister has a mess to fix. I assure him that, if he does the right things for learners in Scotland, he will have the support of Conservative members. I know that he is passionate about the sector and its importance. If we want a skills revolution and an economic transformation in our country, the college sector must play a critical strategic role. However, it will be difficult for the minister to defend his Government’s record on colleges, because it is a record of neglect and worse. His predecessor was underwhelming. Nothing much happened. I am assured by the fact that he is now the Minister for Independence, because the union should be safe for at least another 300 years.

The college sector is key to the transformation of our economy and the creation of skilled and highly paid jobs.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

As Stephen Kerr said, colleges need to play a huge part in delivering a net zero economy. However, in a recent construction industry round-table session, it emerged that, to meet the Scottish Government’s net zero targets, more than 20,000 new engineers and tradespeople will be needed by 2028. Those people would have to be in colleges now. Is that why it is so important that resources are made available to colleges as quickly as possible?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

The college sector is critical to the transformation that my friend has pointed out. Working in partnership with employers, the college sector is critical to meeting some of the daunting challenges that we face. There is an ageing and falling population, and there are the national economic issues of a stubborn and persistent productivity gap and low economic growth. There is the challenge of climate change and net zero deadlines, which has just been mentioned. There is the challenge of enabling new generations of Scottish entrepreneurs to create the businesses and jobs of tomorrow. Our duty across the chamber is to oversee the creation of an education and skills landscape that is fit for the present and that will equip our people for the future. However, fine words butter no parsnips. Ministers cannot pretend that they are interested in outcomes when they undercut the delivery of those outcomes. That is what I accuse the Government of doing. Where is the long-overdue statement of purposes and principles?

The college sector is suffering death by a thousand cuts.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

As usual, we have heard much hyperbole from Mr Kerr. If we want to deal in facts, since 2012-13, the college resource budget has increased by £168 million. I fully accept that, with all sorts of pressures, the colleges will argue that they require a lot more, but will Stephen Kerr acknowledge that as a fact?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

What is the fact? The fact is that, in 2006-07, when the Scottish National Party Government came to power, 354,000 people were enrolled in our colleges and, as of 2021-22, that number was down to 236,730. The Government has cut the sector by a third. I say to the minister that that is not hyperbole. Those are the facts in an answer that he gave to a parliamentary question.

The paradox is that there is exceptionally strong demand for professional and technical qualifications—the very qualifications that colleges offer. Employers want to invest in their workforces, knowing that that gives them a massive competitive advantage, which is especially important at a time when there are global skills shortages.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Stephen Kerr mentioned the purpose and principles statement, the draft of which has been out for consultation for some time. In my feedback, I requested a statement on what the university and college sector should look like as a place of work, given that universities and colleges are very large employers in Scotland. Given that Mr Kerr mentioned it, what are his thoughts on the draft statement?

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

My thoughts on the draft statement are these: I appeal to the workforce—the members of the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers Association—not to use students as collateral in the current industrial dispute because, at the end of the day, the learners should be at the centre of the consideration of the system. John Swinney said that and I agreed with him. The focus of our attention should be the learners and the students and not the system or the institutions or anyone who works in the system.

We recognise the work that the college sector does with employers—I would like to see more of it—and we should embrace a whole-system approach, as James Withers says in his important report, but we should not be forcing Scotland’s colleges to ration opportunity. Colleges are a catalyst for social mobility, which is particularly important for people from backgrounds that lack the kind of opportunity that we as Scottish Conservatives believe should be available to all. Rationing college places diminishes opportunity.

Beyond cutting courses, colleges are also struggling to maintain their facilities. The backlog of work is into the hundreds of millions of pounds. It is one of the most startling aspects of the SNP Government’s neglect of the college sector.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will not be able to take any more interventions.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I think that I have been rather generous. The member is complaining that I am not giving way but I have already given way loads of times.

Accurate measurement of the success of the college sector is hampered by inadequate data collection and reporting. We have the shocking and inaccurate statistic that 30 per cent of students who begin college courses do not complete them. However, when the committee challenged the minister’s predecessor on the need to update how those figures are recorded and reported, we got the complacent response that he would get around to it. I am not accusing the current minister of neglect. I have high expectations for the way in which he interacts with the sector and the way in which he will represent its interests in the wider Government.

The Scottish Conservatives would put the college sector where it belongs, which is at the very heart of our skills agenda. We broadly welcome James Withers’s report on the skills landscape, which rightly focuses on disparity of esteem between the different pathways open to school leavers.

Now, we should be united across the chamber in wanting to do something to tackle that deeply ingrained parity of esteem. There is no high road or low road for school leavers; there is only the right road for the individual, based on their interests, aptitudes, capabilities and ambitions. College courses and professional and technical qualifications are no less important than any of the other available routes. However, as long as the college sector is easy pickings when it comes to cuts, there will be on-going disparity.

When there was a minister in Government who did not have the passion to defend and advance the interests of the college sector, there was a consequential sense of fatalism about the college system and its future.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr is bringing his remarks to a close.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

If we are to tackle the disparity of esteem, funding must be part of the conversation. There is very little evidence that the Government is committed to equality of opportunity for Scotland’s young people—[



The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr is bringing his remarks to a close.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

The Scottish Conservatives will put equality of opportunity at the heart of our programme for government.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

There are no cheap options in education. You either believe in supporting the talents of our people or you do not believe in it. You either believe in investing in human capital or you do not believe in it. We believe.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr, are you bringing your remarks to a close?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, we are all trying to intervene—[



The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Swinney, as you well know, it is up to individual members whether they accept an intervention; it is not a matter for the Presiding Officer.

Mr Kerr, I have been generous with you in order to reflect the generosity that I applied to the minister. However, you need to bring your remarks to a close very soon.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will very soon, Presiding Officer. [



I have spoken before about how politicians are addicted to discussing symptoms rather than the more difficult work of tackling root causes. There are problems in our society with deep-seated poverty. In parts of our country—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Kerr, you will need to conclude. I have been generous. Please conclude now. Thank you.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Right. Okay. I thought that I had eight minutes and I took quite a few interventions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You have now had nearly 10 minutes. Please conclude, Mr Kerr.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will simply close by saying that we on this side will tirelessly work—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Kerr. I need to move on to the next speaker, to protect the speaking time of other members, as I am sure that the member will understand.

I call Pam Duncan-Glancy. You have around seven minutes, please.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of Scottish Labour today. Colleagues will know that the inquiry that we are discussing this afternoon predates my membership of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, so I wish to thank everyone who took part by providing written and in-person evidence, and the committee for its work.

Post-legislative scrutiny is crucial, as is the report, particularly as regionalisation has created significant and cultural reforms. Those who have read the report will note that the committee heard about far more than just regionalisation, and those who have listened to staff and students across the sector recently will be unsurprised by that, given the challenges that it now faces.

When evaluating the impacts of regionalisation, we must first recognise the wider context. Regionalisation happened at a time of huge reform in post-16 education, including the harmonisation of pay and conditions, the introduction of national collective bargaining and the reclassification of colleges as public bodies.

We must also recognise that all that happened against the backdrop of an increasingly difficult financial situation, with real-terms cuts from Government, and external pressures on budgets such as the cost of living crisis and the costs that are associated with the reforms. That makes it difficult to separate the direct impacts that each of the changes, including regionalisation, has had, particularly because the benefits of one aspect of reform could be masked by the pitfalls of another—or, as the Royal Society of Edinburgh put it:

“the policy and funding context in which regionalisation was implemented had significant implications and curtailed the potential for wider success and impact.”

One example of that missed opportunity is from an Audit Scotland report in 2018. It projected a potential saving of £50 million a year from 2015-16 as a result of regionalisation, which could have delivered one of its initial aims to improve financial efficiency. The sector was and is facing an increasing deficit, and a saving of that amount could have begun to plug the gap; instead it has been mitigated by another of the reform policies. Harmonisation costs became the responsibility of colleges in 2018-2019, after the Government stopped the initial funding. The £50 million cost of that absorbed savings from regionalisation.

Reform also restricted the flexibility that colleges have to make and spend money through their reclassification as public bodies with central Government funding. The reclassification has, as the report says, led to a tighter financial operating environment and limited what colleges can do with their money, and, as we see with the redundancies that those in the sector face, it has not really brought the benefit of protections of such classification to pay and conditions.

Workforce costs and colleges account for 70 to 80 per cent of spending. As their largest expenditure, in the perilous financial state that colleges find themselves, they have looked to reduce staff numbers. Some have modelled a staff reduction of more than 25 per cent by 2026-27. That could have disastrous effects on students and colleges across the country.

The Government must address the inflexibility of funding as a priority. I welcome its movement on that but urge it to consider not only whether it can do more for the sake of jobs and courses but whether it can support colleges to realise the flexibility and innovation that regionalisation could have brought and that they are good at.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I assure the member that the process that is being undertaken to identify possible flexibilities is with the colleges. The scale and nature of those will in part be shaped by what they bring forward for our consideration. I give the assurance that we will approach that process with a positive outlook.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I appreciate the minister’s intervention and I welcome that he will look at that with a positive outlook, as that is crucial to addressing some of the financial problems that the sector faces.

All that, coupled with a lack of Government direction over what they should be prioritising and delivering, has made an impact on the funding choices that colleges can make.

The delay in publishing the strategic vision for further and higher education has created uncertainty and made it difficult for institutions to do any long-term financial and strategic planning, leading Audit Scotland to raise concerns over the long-term financial sustainability and to forecast further deterioration in the future. That has also left staff and students living with unsettling consequences of uncertainty.

Without sufficient resources and direction, the potential of regionalisation risks being lost. We cannot afford for that to happen because, as the committee heard and as has been outlined, the benefits can be huge. In Edinburgh, the data is compelling. Regionalisation has resulted in better collaboration with universities, which has led to smoother articulation pathways and a 22 per cent increase in the number of students with advanced standing. Regionalisation has also strengthened relationships with schools and businesses, leading to more than 2,000 local and regional business partnerships and a 300 per cent increase in school-college activity.

In Glasgow, too, the increased credibility from working as one has allowed for stronger relationships with employers, creating a new landscape that opens communications about skills. That allows colleges to know what gaps there are and might be in the future and how best to address them.

Regionalisation has also allowed for clearer calibration of the curriculum—one that reflects the regional labour market. The partnership between Glasgow’s three colleges has done that by working together to develop one streamlined curriculum in order to best incorporate the skills that employers need, broaden provision and remove duplication. The colleges have done that by using existing, established high-level operational structures. Therefore, in the spirit of reducing duplication and providing certainty to colleges, I ask the Government to respond swiftly to questions about the need for the regional board, including whether the board’s functions are already carried out in-house or by other public bodies and whether removing those functions would reduce unnecessary duplication and lead to further savings.

Allowing colleges to have a direct relationship with the Scottish Funding Council could also remove some of the clutter from the already restrictive landscape and give them back a sense of autonomy. Ensuring strong governance is, of course, key in that regard, so I ask the minister to publish the Government’s good governance guidance so that colleges, staff and students can benefit from reduced duplication and effective scrutiny.

Regionalisation has so much potential but, against that backdrop, it feels as though any success has been in spite of the many challenges. A clutter of structural and process reforms, which were all introduced against severe financial decline, have left colleges in a perilous position. The ambition of regionalisation had huge potential, but it has not been met with the leadership, engagement or support from the Government that is needed to ensure its success. I hope that there will be a change of direction from the new minister, and at pace, so that we can empower colleges across the country to live up to their full potential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind all members who wish to speak in the debate to check that they have, in fact, pressed their request-to-speak button.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I was a bit puzzled by the minister’s response to my question about mental health, because he knows that I have raised the issue consistently with him and his predecessors. It seems to be taking an awful long time to get clarity. The think positive programme, which is run by the National Union of Students Scotland, is relatively inexpensive. Forty-eight mental health counsellors are providing an excellent service for students, some of whom are struggling to a great degree after having gone through the pandemic over the past few years. I am not sure why it is taking so long to get clarity on funding so that the service can continue. People’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. If we take too much longer to get the matter resolved, some of those people might go, which would undermine the service, so I hope that the minister will move much more speedily.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I want to emphasise Willie Rennie’s final point. If the group disbands, getting those people back together to serve will be a much harder, much more expensive and much more time-consuming process.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Martin Whitfield is absolutely right. I know that the minister is a reasonable person, so I am sure that he will look at the matter and ensure that we get a resolution sooner rather than later.

I thank the committee clerks and the witnesses who gave us invaluable evidence. We also had some quite entertaining sessions.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh summed it up quite well by highlighting that it is quite difficult to disentangle the benefits of regionalisation from what might have happened anyway. There is no doubt that the broader geography that is provided through some regionalisation allows for greater interaction with some higher education institutions and universities, as well as with the sector and employers. However, the removal of duplication, as it is called, means that some localities do not have certain courses. As we know, students in further education are less likely to travel to premises that are further away. The likelihood is that some young people have been deprived of the opportunity of being trained within their community, so there are pros and cons.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Does Mr Rennie believe that the experience of the pandemic, when people became more accustomed to using digital learning and the sector became much more adept at delivering that, perhaps provides some space for innovation in the provision of education to address exactly the problem that he fairly raises? Courses might not be available in an individual locality, but they might be available digitally.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

That is true, but we need to be careful not to overstate the benefits of or overrely on the new technologies. I have to say that there is nothing like meeting face to face and being able to have personal interaction, discussions on the side and opportunities to ask the lecturer or member of staff a question that someone might not want to ask in front of everybody else. We should not overstate the benefits of remote learning, although of course there will be opportunities.

There is an opportunity for the new minister. It is fair to say that there was quite a lack of direction and quite a high degree of drift under the previous ministerial team. I am hopeful that the minister will be able to provide that emphasis and get a bit of zip into the direction of further education and the college sector. We have had a fairly radical proposal from the Withers review, and the Hayward report should be coming out soon. We also have the reorganisation of the national bodies. A variety of consultations and working groups are coming to a conclusion, and I know that the minister will want to pull all those together, but we need to do that with a degree of speed, because colleges are already making decisions now about their future and what courses they will provide. If we do not provide them with direction, they will make those decisions by themselves.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I do not disagree with Willie Rennie, but does he recognise that, with a set of proposals as radical as those in the Withers review, although we need to strike a balance, it is appropriate to take a bit of time to consult all those involved, not least the trade unions as well as many others, to get it right and ensure that there are no unintended consequences in what is proposed before we get to the final decision about what we take forward?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

T his is not the minister’s fault, but the predicament that we are in is that, because of the lack of direction and the drift that has been happening for the past few years, colleges are making decisions right now about their future and the courses that they are providing, but the Government is not in a position—not unreasonably, for the minister—to provide them with direction on that.

That leads me on to some really odd decisions that are being made. I thought that the Government’s policy for the public sector was that there should be no compulsory redundancies, but one college in Glasgow is proposing compulsory redundancies. I therefore do not quite understand what Government policy is now. Are we for or against compulsory redundancies? Following the Office for National Statistics reclassification, there is no doubt that colleges are part of the public sector—they are part of the mainstream offer from Government—but the minister seems relaxed about allowing compulsory redundancies to take place at one of the biggest college institutions in the country. I would like clarity on that from the minister in his conclusion.

On pay, the ministerial team was content to intervene in the teachers pay dispute but is refusing to intervene in the college pay dispute, which is therefore lasting quite a bit longer. The lecturers—the staff—are being told that a pay increase will result in job losses, because no other money is available. On top of that, the Government has cut £26 million from the funding. I know that some of the decisions that have been made recently are not directly connected to the £26 million cut, but it has not helped.

There is real confusion about Government policy. Is it for intervention to resolve pay disputes? It is in some areas, but not in others. The Government is pitting one lot of staff in the public sector against another by saying that it is taking money from the college sector to pay for pay rises for teachers. We are told that there is no more money for colleges and, all of a sudden, the no compulsory redundancies policy seems to be right out the window. We want clarity from the Government as to whether that is the case.

There were indications from the minister in his letter to the committee yesterday about looking at some of the flexibilities that exist in England. I look forward to discussion on flexibilities for colleges to allow them to be more innovative.

Also, we just need to get rid of the Glasgow Colleges Regional Board. I do not know why it exists. The committee took a more balanced approach to that issue, but I am not taking a balanced approach; I think that the board needs to go. It is duplication, it costs a lot of money and we should get rid of it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Rennie, could you bring your remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I hope that the minister will address those serious points. The debate has been good so far, and I hope that the minister can answer the questions that I have posed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate with speeches of six minutes.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Ten years on from the college regionalisation, the Education, Children and Young People Committee was keen to undertake an inquiry to examine how the structural changes were working in practice and explore to what extent the aims of regionalisation had been achieved. Those aims included: having an ambition for all young people over the age of 16 to stay in learning and achieve qualifications, improving their job prospects and earnings in the long term; removing course duplication and unnecessary competition for students between colleges and universities; having greater efficiency, while still supporting local delivery; and ensuring that the college landscape could meet current education, employment and skills challenges and respond rapidly to emerging scenarios.

We wanted to look at how well equipped colleges were to deliver what is required of them and to consider any further changes that might be of benefit to the college sector, learners and the communities that the sector serves. I am very grateful to the variety of organisations and individuals who provided written and oral evidence, sharing their experience and their insight into what was working well and where challenges and opportunities for improvement existed.

Colleges are institutions delivering on multiple critical fronts. They provide opportunities that allow people to develop skills to live more independently and that allow others to take their first steps back into formal education, helping some of those furthest away from the job market.

I have mentioned before the excellent work that Ayrshire College does in that regard. It has a very successful programme called project search, which runs in collaboration with partners at University hospital Crosshouse and the National Trust for Scotland at Culzean castle. It provides supported learning students with 800 hours of immersion in the facilities of each host business, preparing them to be work ready. The college has told me previously that many students have progressed from the intensive work focus of project search to achieve paid employment.

Colleges provide tangible opportunities for widening access and social mobility. Indeed, in his evidence to the committee, Stuart Brown of the EIS Further Education Lecturers Association highlighted that it is a specific mission of colleges to deliver education to people in their communities who have perhaps been left behind by other parts of the education system.

Colleges are places of lifelong learning and development, providing a platform where people can improve their skills or develop new interests at any point in their life. In delivering high-quality, highly respected advanced vocational qualifications and professional training, colleges, with their strong links to industry, play a pivotal role in upskilling the workforce in new technologies for new industries, making them absolutely critical to the realisation of the Scottish Government’s national strategy for economic transformation and its goal of a wellbeing economy.

The committee report says that it is clear from the evidence that there have been positive changes from regionalisation, alongside the broader policy changes taking place over the past 10 years, including the creation of colleges of scale, providing a stronger and more credible platform to engage with education and economic partners. That is something that I saw at first hand with Ayrshire College and the involvement of its principal in various economic forums.

The committee concluded that the coherence of the curriculum across the region that the college serves has aided learner pathways from school to higher education. Also of note are increases in articulation, widening access to higher education. In his evidence to the committee, Sir Peter Scott, the then commissioner for fair access, highlighted that colleges were absolutely crucial to the aim of fair access. He stated that colleges were a key path into degree courses, noting that, of the entrants to degree courses in higher education who had come from a more deprived background, 40 per cent went through a college route. I agree with his conclusion that Scotland’s record on fair access would be much diminished if it were not for colleges.

Enhancement of the student voice through the strengthening of student associations and student representation in college decision making is another area recognised as a success. However, along with the clear successes, there are frustrations and challenges that need to be addressed.

It is beyond doubt that the Scottish Government currently faces the most difficult public spending environment since devolution. There are pressures throughout our public sector and I understand and accept that really difficult decisions have been, and will continue to need to be, taken by Scottish Government ministers. In that context, maintaining the college resource budget at last year’s level is not unwelcome. However, I also accept and understand that colleges, like all public bodies, face increased costs and pressures.

I recognise the flexibilities that the Scottish Government has introduced for colleges, as outlined in the letter that the cabinet secretary sent to the committee. However, notwithstanding what Mr Dey said in his intervention on Pam Duncan-Glancy, I press the minister in that regard. I know that he is interested in the matter and was during his time on the committee. His predecessor agreed with the principle of being as flexible as possible and providing as many fiscal and operational tools as we could to the college sector. Therefore, I would welcome it if, in his closing speech, the minister could outline what more the Scottish Government can do to support colleges to continue to deliver within the existing financial envelope and when it can do that.

The committee produced a balanced report that acknowledges success and highlights challenges and opportunities. I commend it to the chamber and thank everyone who contributed to it.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I advise members that we are tight for time, so I would be obliged if colleagues could stick to their speaking allocations.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

More than a decade ago, the Scottish Government embarked on its college rationalisation strategy, which resulted in a reduction in the number of colleges from 41 to 26 and the creation of 13 regions. We know from the committee’s report that its members concluded that regionalisation has led to a

“more credible platform to engage with educational and economic partners” and a better constructed pathway for young people to access colleges, as well as enhancing the voices of students and their student bodies. That is progress that all MSPs can welcome.

However, although progress has been made in the area, it does not excuse the SNP’s mismanagement of higher and further education. Our learning institutions are suffering, as are our students. The SNP’s decisions to cut funding, reduce services and ignore the concerns of trade unions and academics mean that colleges have been left to pick up the mess.

One recent example is New College Lanarkshire in my region. Many talented students, including the likes of Lewis Capaldi, have attended that college, and I am proud that students have chosen Lanarkshire for learning. However, students have been told that they will need to find somewhere else to live, as the Motherwell campus has closed its halls of residence, citing Government cuts. Staff who are impacted by that decision have been offered voluntary redundancy or redeployment, all because the establishment is facing a real-terms cut of £4.3 million.

That impacts not only students who live in the Central Scotland region but young people who live in rural areas. I have had several people contact me since the news broke. One email that I received was from a grandmother who lives in Argyll. She told me that her grandchild, who lives on the same island as her, will not be able to accept their place at Motherwell campus because of the accommodation closure.

I ask members to imagine being a young person in that position: working hard to obtain the grades needed to be accepted for New College Lanarkshire, being told that the halls of residence were there to provide them with safe and secure accommodation and receiving their acceptance letter only to find out that they can no longer go because of Scottish Government cuts. What message does that send to our rural young people who choose to study in urban areas? Is the minister aware of the real-life consequences that cuts to colleges cause for our students?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I hear repeatedly from Meghan Gallacher, perhaps more than other Conservatives, about that issue. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Will she acknowledge the impact that the fiscal incompetence of some of her colleagues who were in charge at Westminster over a damaging brief period has had on the Scottish Government’s budget and all that that means?

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

That is a bold claim from a minister of the Scottish Government, I have to say.

To add to the woes that the education sector across Lanarkshire faces, it was announced that nurseries at the Coatbridge and Cumbernauld campuses of New College Lanarkshire were also to close. Thirty members of childcare staff were impacted, mostly women, and I was gobsmacked. We face a childcare crisis in Scotland and nearly 30 early years practitioners were told that their place of work was shutting its doors.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Does the member think that it is appropriate for the minister to sum up the genuine concerns that she is representing in the chamber as weeping and wailing and “gnashing of teeth”? Is that not, ultimately, disrespectful of the concerns of these young people and their ambitions?

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I completely agree, but then again, as I said, it was bold of the minister to talk to the Conservatives about financial mismanagement. [


.] SNP members need only look at their own Government.

I turn back to the real concerns. The minister laughing about the serious issues that I am trying to raise is completely disrespectful to the people they are affecting. Staff are devastated by the announcement of the closure of the nurseries, not just because they are going to lose their jobs, but also for the children and their parents who might not be able to continue with their college courses. Those are the real impacts that cuts have on our college estates.

Regretfully, those are not the only local challenges that I will share today. Back in April, it was announced that New College Lanarkshire will leave the Hamilton campus when the lease expires in July. That will be another blow to Hamilton town centre, following the closure of the University of the West of Scotland on Almada Street some years earlier. All the recent discussions at New College Lanarkshire resulted in a reduction in staff. Unison has launched an online petition calling on the education secretary to intervene in the crisis that is engulfing the further education sector in Scotland.

There is a crisis in our nurseries, a crisis in our schools and a crisis in our universities and colleges. The SNP will try to give itself a pat on the back today because of the positive messaging in the committee report, but the state of Scottish education in general is bleak. That is a symptom, as Stephen Kerr rightly pointed out, but there is a cure. The cure has to be worked on together through cross-party policy working. If Stephen Kerr had had the time today, I am sure that he would have been able to share some of the policies that we propose.

I will close with a plea to the Scottish Government and the minister. Stop squandering money by making bad choices in voting through bad law. Make good choices by investing in our higher and further education, so that young people, such as the young person from a rural community whom I mentioned, can go to a college of their choice to study a course that will give them the foundations to succeed.

Photo of Bill Kidd Bill Kidd Scottish National Party

As we know, in 2012 the Scottish Government took the decision to introduce structural changes to the college sector as part of its wider reforms to post-16 education. Those changes were designed to make course choice more effective and college operations more efficient. They resulted in colleges being organised into regions, which meant having larger colleges that were fewer in number.

Ten years after those changes, the Education, Children and Young People Committee has produced a report that looks at how regionalisation has worked in practice and what further changes the sector could benefit from in the future. Although I only recently joined the committee, I thank all the members, clerks and the variety of organisations and individuals who took part in helping to shape and produce what is a comprehensive, well-thought-through and insightful report.

The 2012 changes had a number of aims, including to provide the opportunity for all young people over the age of 16 to stay in learning, to remove course duplication and to reform the college landscape to ensure that it could meet current education, employment and skills challenges and respond rapidly to emerging scenarios. Another aim was that of merging some colleges to create colleges of scale.

The 2012 consultation also sought to increase the voice of students in decision making. There was already some representation, but the changes aimed to strengthen those arrangements, including through proposals to strengthen the profile of student unions, make student representation more effective and, in turn, help to ensure that institutions met the needs of their learners.

Overall, the response from those who gave evidence to the committee identified a number of positive outcomes from regionalisation. They agreed that the changes have increased the voice of students by helping to grow college student associations and giving students more say. Colleges of scale have created larger institutions with more standing in the regions and more ability to respond to local economic needs. There has been less duplication in the courses that are offered across each region.

With regard to providing the opportunity for young people to stay in learning, I am afraid that Ruth Maguire stole my line, as usual. The commissioner for fair access, Sir Peter Scott, noted that the social base of college students is much wider than that of students at higher education institutions—in 2020-21, people from the 20 per cent most deprived communities in Scotland made up 25.3 per cent of college entrants, compared with only 16.7 per cent of entrants to full-time first degree courses at university.

Colleges are key providers of training and development and places where people can work towards professional and vocational qualifications. They are key drivers of social mobility. They give people who face the greatest barriers to learning the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In 2020-21, more than a fifth—22.6 per cent—of learning hours were delivered to students with a declared disability.

Colleges are at the centre of delivering the Scottish Government’s national strategy for economic transformation and supporting the creation of entrepreneurial people and culture, new market opportunities, productive businesses and regions, a skilled workforce and a fairer and more equal society.

Karen Watt, the chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, highlighted the success that many colleges have in engaging with local employers and small and medium-sized businesses through funds such as the flexible workforce development fund and the work that they do to develop entrepreneurial people and new market opportunities.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh echoed those successes, saying:

“Colleges will have a pivotal role to play in reskilling workers in support of a just transition ... While this is often viewed through the context of workers exiting the oil and gas industry and to the need for higher level skills, it applies to any worker needing to upgrade and adapt their skills ... The work of colleges in supporting reskilling of the more traditional trades associated with the built environment will be essential.”

Therefore, it is important to note that, despite difficult economic times, the Scottish Government’s 2023-24 budget allocated nearly £2 billion to Scotland’s universities and colleges, maintaining college and university resource budgets at last year’s levels, and that, since 2012-13, the college sector resource budget has increased by more than £168 million in cash terms.

The committee identified a number of areas in which challenges remain, including the fact that being defined by geographical boundaries can be limiting, particularly when working to respond to a large sectoral demand for skills. In its recommendations, the committee recognised the challenge of responding to sector demands for skills and the burden that that might place on SMEs.

The committee agreed with Audit Scotland that, to improve the current situation in relation to workforce skills planning, strong leadership from the Scottish Government is required, as is more effective joint working between Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council.

The committee identified the fact that colleges are facing a difficult financial situation and recommended that, in the current financial climate, it is essential that the Scottish Government provides clarity to colleges regarding what they should be prioritising. The committee agreed that, in response to the current financial situation, the Scottish Government should explore ways of providing more flexibility for colleges in terms of finance and delivery. I believe that the Scottish Government is looking at that, and I urge it to update the committee on that important point at the earliest possible opportunity.

The latest student satisfaction statistics published by the SFC show that nine out of 10—90.2 per cent—full-time students were satisfied with their college experience in 2021-22. That shows that we are doing a number of things right and that, overall, the changes that have been made to the sector have been a success.

However, it is also clear that the report identifies a number of ways in which we can build on that success, and I urge the Government to give all the committee’s recommendations due consideration to ensure that our colleges continue to flourish.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

I thank the committee for its work on the report and for the opportunity to scrutinise it. I am sure that we all agree that Scotland needs a financially sustainable further education sector that delivers for those who need it, and that is what I will focus on in my speech.

From reading the report and the submissions that have been received by the committee, it appears to me that staff, trade unions and students alike are reporting that the experience of regionalisation has been overwhelmingly negative. I accept that it has been a complex time of change, but we have heard that potential opportunities were just not grabbed.

Although many of the problems that we see in our colleges existed prior to regionalisation, users feel that it is apparent that the process has, in many cases, only made things worse. Jobs have already been lost, more redundancies are on the cards and the pay settlement has not been helped by the Government, as Willie Rennie outlined well. Another point that has been raised is that the necessary repairs and additions to college estates are simply not happening, although they are essential for the sector.

It is the views of those who are on the educational front line that should be paramount in this debate, not those of lobbyists or of politicians—and I include myself in that. I encourage people to read the accounts that were given to the committee by those working in the sector and to listen to some of the evidence sessions. They all seem to be telling the committee that the centralisation of courses has meant that local provision of a breadth of education has been undermined, and that that has further disadvantaged those who live in more remote areas, such as mine, making it increasingly difficult to limit the financial costs of travel and study. There has been a big change in costs for those students and we have heard other members say that that may mean that people will not be attracted to study those courses. They are also saying that further education is still treated as the unloved sibling of higher education. We have heard that tale for many years and it is important that that was brought to the committee.

Unison’s submission made it clear that surveys of its members showed a serious increase in the levels of stress being experienced, leading to more absence. The majority of staff felt that their workloads were extremely high, which is not a sustainable situation for colleges.

Colleges are being asked to make cuts and efficiencies, but the Government has not been clear about exactly what should be prioritised. I heard that first hand during a recent visit to the Newtown St Boswells campus of Borders College, in my region. Staff and students are not being unreasonable. They want to have some guidance from the Government about those issues.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I, too, have visited Borders College and was very impressed. I think that the criticism of Government direction is a fair one, but I offer an assurance that the statement of purpose and principles will be published shortly and it will offer the guidance that colleges have been looking for.

Photo of Carol Mochan Carol Mochan Labour

That was going to be my next point. I was going to ask for that to be made clear, so I welcome the minister’s contribution.

Like many things in the public sector, regionalisation was driven more by the need to save money than by a desire to deliver better education. It has simply not delivered meaningful, positive transformation and it is part of the wider lack of attention given to further education over a long period of time. The committee’s report reflects that and shows that there has been a long-term lack of attention to that sector.

That is abundantly clear when we consider student poverty. It is still not clear when the special support payment will be delivered, who will be eligible for that or how it will interact with other Scottish benefits. It also remains unclear how and when the Government will increase student support in line with the living wage by 2024-25. Those important points must be addressed.

The committee is rightly concerned that standards could be adversely affected in an effort to make savings. There is no way to make yet more savings without that happening. We must have a clearer and more stable financial settlement.

Regionalisation has happened against a backdrop of serious funding cuts for universities and colleges across Scotland. That is a common occurrence within the public sector and one that is often treated as being inevitable when it is anything but. We cannot still believe that it is possible to keep doing more with less after the years of austerity that this country has suffered. It simply does not work. We must value our colleges properly and understand that they are the foothold that many people need to move on in their lives and careers. That cannot be treated as a secondary consideration.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in this debate as a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee. I add my thanks to all those who gave evidence to the committee, to the clerks and to my colleagues for their hard work.

The regionalisation of colleges has helped to ensure the delivery of attractive, high-quality educational opportunities and has provided Scotland’s students with choices by creating colleges at scale. Duplication in the provision of courses has reduced, and stronger school-college and other local partnerships have been fostered as a result.

To me, the inquiry has also highlighted how college regionalisation lies at the heart of Scotland’s just transition. The climate emergency is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges that we face as a world. The Scottish Funding Council’s 2021 report “Coherence and Sustainability: A Review of Tertiary Education and Research” emphasised the significant role that colleges must play in the drive for a green recovery by equipping our citizens with the education, skills and training that are needed for new and emerging jobs. Locally, New College Lanarkshire has integrated sustainable policies as part of the strategy and it plans to be carbon neutral by 2042.

Colleges are anchor institutions in our communities, and regionalisation has strengthened their ties to universities, schools, local authorities and local businesses. New College Lanarkshire has developed diverse partnerships that have led to wide-ranging developments. The smart hub that has been developed in Lanarkshire in partnership with North Lanarkshire Council and the University of Strathclyde has been funded by the Scottish Government’s advancing manufacturing challenge fund. It has opened up manufacturing innovation and robotics to educators and businesses alike. The college has also worked with ACS Clothing to create a spectacular ozone chamber mural.

Those are very different examples, but they both demonstrate the remarkable innovation and creativity that lie at the core of our college sector.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Is the member as concerned as I am about the closure of the halls of residence at New College Lanarkshire, given the impact that it could have on students who are trying to access the college?

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

I am aware of the challenges in that area. Hopefully that is something that we can pick up on.

Colleges are rightly recognised for their critical role in fostering social mobility, and regionalisation has helped to pave the way to educational opportunities for those who have been furthest away from the education system and the labour market.

Everyone deserves an opportunity to access higher education, irrespective of their socioeconomic background. Over the past decade, school-college relationships have become stronger and they have played a vital role in lifting young people’s aspirations to stay in education. Those partnerships mean that pupils have had greater exposure to potential pathways that they find attractive.

Colleges provide alternative environments to schools and universities. Sir Peter Scott said:

“The college route is absolutely crucial, because colleges clearly reach people that universities, in their own right, find it much more difficult to reach, even with their best efforts.”—[

Official Report


Education, Children and Young People Committee

, 1 June 2022; c 20.]

Enhancing student voices is pivotal to creating a college sector that is diverse and truly learner centred. During our inquiry, it was understood that, although regionalisation has enhanced the student voice, particularly in students’ involvement in discussions at board level, student associations need to feel able to challenge boards properly. Sue Webber has already highlighted the committee’s call for the Scottish Government to consider how funding might impact on the independence of student voices.

Regionalisation has brought a wide range of benefits to our communities, including the capability of colleges to be agile and responsive to our society’s ever-changing needs. However, current policies and funding landscapes can hinder that ability to respond to those local needs. In response, our committee urgently recommends that colleges be given as many financial and operational flexibilities as possible to help them deliver on the various strands of their work, including flexibility for the year end, flexibility on SFC outcomes and flexibility in terms of access to additional funds.

I appreciate what the minister said on the subject. The flexibilities that have been delivered this year have been helpful, with the changes to guidance to optimise the balance of full-time and part-time provision; credit target reduction and the retention of a share of funding where credit targets are underdelivered; and the rolling back of backlog and life-cycle maintenance into one funding allocation.

However, I echo Ruth Maguire’s call for prompt action to deliver further flexibilities. I ask the minister to reaffirm his commitment to continue working jointly with colleges, to agree additional flexibilities and to assist colleges in their day-to-day operations.

Colleges often find themselves taking multiple directions. As a consequence, without a clear definition of their role and purpose, the intended goals of regionalisation can go unmet. I know that the minister is aware of the importance and urgency of a final purpose and principles statement. I appreciate that the college sector is highly complex and that it needs to be decluttered. However, delivery of that statement is vital to ensure that colleges can continue to positively contribute to our society, economy and just transition. It really cannot come soon enough.

It is positive to hear how our colleges and communities have reaped the benefits of regionalisation. However, challenges remain and there is no room for complacency when it comes to the delivery of education. Although I believe that the minister is right to take time to engage and collaborate directly with college leaders, listen to them and work with them, we must make the quickest progress possible. There must be a continued focus on developing Scotland’s world-class educational system into one that places learners at its heart, grows diverse partnership working and encourages people from all walks of life in Scotland to grow and thrive.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Exactly 10 years ago—in fact, almost to the day—the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013 was passed by the Parliament, by 65 Government votes to 51 Opposition votes. It was a very lengthy process, and not without considerable controversy. That was partly because it was a hybrid bill—just like the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014—and, with hindsight, I think we all agree it was a bit too big and unwieldy.

There were some very good intentions, such as improving governance of further and higher education institutions, but many of those intentions became submerged in complexity.

The college regionalisation programme was part of that, and it fell into a little difficulty because the main driver was too often seen to be administrative, with the accompanying financial saving, rather than educational improvement. Undoubtedly, there is a balance to be sought between accountability and autonomy, which is never an easy one. However, on college regionalisation, that balance proved to be quite difficult, because although several college principals and boards at the time were very supportive of the Scottish Government’s plans because they liked the idea of co-ordinated regional curricula—as Pam Duncan-Glancy mentioned—others wanted more autonomy. Of course, we then had more issues in Glasgow, in Lanarkshire and at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Mike Russell’s speeches at the time focused on the financial economies of scale and the reduction of duplication that he believed would be delivered. Unfortunately, because of that, less attention was paid to educational outcomes, and that was true for higher education as well. It was certainly one of the reasons why the Scottish Conservatives—and, I suspect, Labour and the Liberal Democrats—opposed the bill.

I felt that, although supersized colleges would undoubtedly make financial savings, they would lose a bit of the flexibility in delivering courses to local economies, which was the advantage of the previous college system; I note that that issue is at the forefront of what the education committee states in paragraph 95. I vividly remember that, when I first came into the Parliament, I visited what was the Adam Smith College and Rosyth dockyard and was told how successful the college’s local-economy approach had been, and I worried that supersized colleges were going to take away a little bit of that. Up to a point, that has been true.

I mention all of that not only to provide some context, but also in the light of the recent report from James Withers. I applaud that report, because he reflected quite a number of the concerns that date from the

2013 act

. He picked up on the concerns that have been referenced in many Colleges Scotland papers over the years, and in those produced about the sector by Audit Scotland. In particular, Withers examined the lack of coherency in post-16 education and qualifications, the lack of parity of esteem between colleges, universities and apprenticeship routes, and issues that have consistently been raised, for many years, by those in the further education sector.

As the minister hinted, the Withers report provides an excellent opportunity to address many of those issues, and specifically to provide a clarity of vision. Notwithstanding what the SFC and the Cumberford-Little report said about reforming the whole structure, I think that the most important recommendation in the Withers report is about the need for the public and business to trust in a new structure of post-16 education that is both clearly understood and appropriate to the diverse needs of the modern workforce, because we should not ignore the fact that 44 per cent of businesses that responded to the survey from the Institute of Directors are saying that they do not really think that their employees have the right skills for the modern economy.

It also matters that the public and business understand, trust and value the qualifications system. In that regard, the Education, Children and Young People Committee has made an important point in paragraph 106 about whether colleges should be able to design their own qualifications and, if they should, how that would fit into a national design. That is particularly pertinent if there is to be a merger of some of the post-16 education agencies, for which I think that there is a good case.

What surely matters most is that educational successes and skills are increasingly adaptable in the modern world. Presently, all is not well. I mentioned that businesses are complaining about weaknesses in their employees’ ability to harness basic skills. We know that college drop-out rates are still too high, as Audit Scotland has identified. I hear what the Scottish Government says about the increasing numbers of people going to positive destinations, but we still have a debate about what “positive destinations” means, and we have an even bigger debate about tracking those who perhaps fall out of the education system.

In paragraph 113, the committee rightly highlights careers guidance, which members have mentioned. My party has a lot to say about how that can be improved, because the right careers guidance is essential to young people. We know what happens if they get bad careers guidance: that can affect a youngster’s pathway for their future career.

There is a major issue of the college estate and how well suited it is to deliver the education of the future. The sector is complaining bitterly that successive cuts to colleges have, in some institutions, done long-term damage to that environment.

This debate is surely about what policies can deliver excellence in our institutions, maintain and enhance the sector’s national and international reputation, and respond to the diverse needs of the local economy. The Withers report has a lot to say on that.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I thank committee members, clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and all the witnesses who supported our college regionalisation inquiry, which we are debating this afternoon.

Given the obvious challenges that the sector is facing, not least financial challenges, I want to set the undoubted success of college regionalisation in some sort of context. We are not in denial about the challenges, but we should celebrate the success of regionalisation.

I will begin by rewinding to 2011. Back in the day, when I was a regional MSP and Alasdair Allan was colleges minister, Alasdair accepted my invite to attend the then North Glasgow College, which today is part of Glasgow Kelvin College. We were there to discuss potential college regionalisation, as well as the excellent work of student rectors. The most important discussion was a round table with students, who spoke of confusion about clear educational pathways, from national certificates, HNCs and HNDs, to higher education, how different colleges work with each other, and different credit requirements. There was a real confusion and lack of articulation, and most students wanted to see reform.

The colleges regionalisation inquiry heard strong evidence that the aspirations of the students whom we spoke to some—Jeez—12 years ago now have broadly, although not entirely, been realised through college regionalisation. We have heard, in the debate, about the progress in Edinburgh, and there has been similar progress in Glasgow. A fragmented college network in Glasgow back then has been transformed—albeit not perfectly—into a three-college network, with colleges working much more closely and collegiately together to ensure, where possible, a smooth and coherent learner journey.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

If I have time, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you a little bit of time back, Mr Doris.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

Does Bob Doris agree that we can make further progress if we take up the recommendations of the Withers report? Withers clearly pointed out that there is still confusion about the post-16 landscape.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

I am keen to look at that, as there are absolutely opportunities there. I would like time to have a look at that in a bit more detail, but I take on board the point that has been made.

We have a much smoother and more coherent learner journey as a result of regionalisation. Crucially, it is also true that there is greater course articulation between colleges and universities, which allows a greater amount of students from college to gain advanced standing when moving on to university. That allows further education students to receive full credit for prior college learning and to move into the most appropriate part of an undergraduate degree. They are not starting on day 1, year 1. They have that prior learning, and that should be recognised by universities.

There has been some progress. In 2014-15, that was the case in relation to 37.5 per cent of those who went on to university from a college setting. Currently, that figure is 58 per cent, so progress has been made, but our target is 75 per cent, so that progress is not good enough and there are recommendations in our report about doing far better. Sir Peter Scott described the progress as “glacial”. Our recommendations are directed towards higher education because it must do more in relation to articulation.

Regionalisation has also boosted our widening access agenda, and the best way to illustrate that is to quote Sir Peter Scott, who stated that regionalisation had produced

“larger institutions that are more comprehensive, more resilient and more self-confident”.

It was his view that the

“strengthening of the Colleges has allowed them to continue to play a key role in fair access” and that, had their role not been strengthened,

“their role in higher education could have been reduced”.

He concluded:

“Scotland’s record on fair access would be much diminished if it were not for colleges.”—[

Official Report


Education, Children and Young People Committee

, 1 June 2022; c 20.]

We have already heard that 40 per cent of those from the most deprived backgrounds who are studying at university started their learning career in colleges. That is a significant success.

I said at the start of my speech that we should not shy away from challenges. We need to be frank about the financial challenges that are facing the sector. I was deeply disappointed, to put it mildly, when the £26 million that was announced last December for colleges was withdrawn. In some respects, however, that is also a red herring. That £26 million was for one year only; it was not recurring. Colleges work on a three to five-year budget. I would be greatly sceptical about any college principal saying that the loss of that £26 million means fewer courses, more redundancies and more challenges on pay. Had that £26 million been put into the core settlement for each and every year, I have no doubt that some of the challenges that colleges face would have been much easier to cope with. We should not deny that those challenges exist.

Also on articulation, will course rationalisation impact on our ability to get to that 75 per cent articulation target? On widening access, I am concerned that the expensive outreach work that the colleges do in communities might fall by the wayside when they try to tighten their belts because of their budgets. We have to make sure that we do not go in the wrong direction on articulation and widening access.

Why is it that colleges provide the exact same SVQ level of course but get far less money than universities to do so? The Funding Council accepted that it had to address that point, and it is looking at it. I am concerned, however, that addressing that inequality would put an eye-watering financial burden on the Government. I am not looking for that gap to be filled in the immediate future but I want to see incremental progress for colleges because it is simply not fair.

A lot of good progress has been made with college regionalisation, but we should not be blind to the financial challenges facing the college sector in the current financial climate.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

In the previous session of Parliament, I developed a close working relationship with the unions that represent staff in our colleges. At the election, I committed to them that I would advocate for a parliamentary inquiry into the situation in the college sector—specifically, on industrial relations and the significant breakdown in relations between unions and employers. The committee’s report rightly does not focus exclusively on industrial relations, because colleagues across the committee had other priorities. The report is well rounded.

I am, however, pleased that an inquiry took place and that college staff got the opportunity to have their voices heard via their union representatives.

I am particularly delighted that one committee member was so enthusiastic about the report that he raced straight back into Government to deliver its recommendations.

I will focus my contribution on industrial relations. The college sector moved towards national bargaining concurrently with regionalisation, although not through exactly the same process. It was a major step forward. Our college lecturers are now well paid, which is a credit to them and to their trade union. Sometimes a tone creeps into discussions about college lecturers’ pay that gives the impression that they should be apologetic for what they and their union have achieved. They should not be apologetic; they should congratulate themselves for it.

However, in the education sector we have seen national strike action in seven out of the past eight years, which would not have been tolerated in most other sectors in our society. There have been three lessons-learned exercises, but clearly the lessons are not being learned. Something is deeply broken. There is a question about the extent to which the problem is about culture and interpersonal relations in the national negotiating framework, or is about the framework itself, or is about the structure of the national joint negotiating committee. So far, the NJNC’s only achievement beyond annual pay negotiations has been a new policy on menopause. It is a good policy—I recommend it to other sectors—but that is so much less than what was aspired to when that national structure was set up.

I have heard that there have recently been improvements in the relationships between the two sides in the NJNC. I certainly welcome that. However, over many years one of the key issues has been that agreement is reached in the room, only for both sides to leave that room with radically different understandings of what the agreement was. Given that, and the recommendation from the lessons-learned exercise that there should be an independent chair, we now need to move towards that approach. I recognise that for many of my colleagues in the union movement there is significant reluctance, but we need to break that impasse in respect of there being different understandings of something that both sides had apparently agreed to.

The current lessons-learned exercise should be the last one. I understand the Government’s reluctance to get involved, but robust intervention is needed, not last-minute cash, if we are to subscribe to everything that is in the exercise. One of the exercise’s clearest recommendations was that the Government should undermine such a tendency. In the previous session of Parliament I was more guilty than most of demanding that the Government intervene at the last minute with additional cash. I realise that, at the moment, there is no additional cash to go round. However, I would appreciate the minister’s setting out when the Government expects to respond to the lessons-learned exercise. I recognise that the delay that has taken place so far has not happened at the Government’s end; it is happening because the Government is receiving submissions from both sides.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

Paragraph 398 of the committee’s report covers the responsibilities of the various parties on that, and it highlights the role that the Scottish Government should play. Does Ross Greer agree that its role is not only about improving the relationships between two parties but about facilitating actual understanding of what the agreement is?

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I welcome that intervention and agree that that is key. At various points in the past couple of years I have mooted with the union and college employers the question of what they believe the consequences would be if we were to move towards a tripartite negotiating system such as the one that we have for teachers. Both sides and the Scottish Government have significant reluctance about that, for obvious reasons that I understand. However, having an independent chair who is appointed by the Government but with the agreement of both sides would help with collective understanding.

I want to use my remaining time to focus on the situation at City of Glasgow College, where there are plans for 100 compulsory redundancies immediately on the back of a large voluntary severance process. I and staff at the college have repeatedly raised concerns about the consultation process; we do not believe that the 45-day statutory minimum period is adequate. I welcome the minister’s letter to college principals, in which he reminded them of their fair-work obligations in that respect. The union’s request for an extension of the consultation period has been rejected.

I am particularly concerned about scrutiny. Eighteen individual business cases are involved in those 100 redundancies, but the college board has not considered the cases individually. There has been only what the college principal has described to me as “a quantitative consolidation”, which is to say “a summary”. I do not think that that is good enough. What more significant decision could a college board make than one about 100 compulsory redundancies? I have circulated to members of the Scottish Parliament a motion urging them to support calls for the board to scrutinise each individual business case before it makes that decision.

The other element of my motion is on the proposals for alternative savings that have been put forward by the EIS-FELA union. It is hard for staff to face redundancy in a college that has a large well-paid and multilayered senior management team that includes a principal who is one of the highest-paid public sector officials in Scotland and posts such as “executive chef”. The staff’s alternatives need to be taken seriously. I am concerned that they are going to the board only via senior management, who have a clear conflict of interests, given that the staff’s proposals include compulsory redundancies among the senior management team rather than among front-line lecturing and support staff. I hope that an unfiltered version of the report will be tabled, which the senior management team will have every right to respond to.

The situation also points towards wider issues about college governance, including the perception among many colleges’ workforces that they are the private fiefdoms of their principals and that there is insufficient scrutiny of them. The Parliament needs to accept some responsibility for that; colleges are public bodies, and we are, ultimately, responsible for scrutinising the public sector.

However, the boards exist for a reason. I am glad that we are moving towards mandatory trade union representation on boards; I pushed for that. However, we need to consider going further and, in a way, to go back to the future and consider appointing local councillors to college boards. Colleges should be rooted in their local communities. Councillors who are appointed by the local authority rather than by the board chair and the principal would be able to offer a level of robust scrutiny from which a number of our college boards would certainly benefit.

Our colleges are doing transformational stuff, and their staff and students deserve a lot of credit for doing so, because they are doing it while they face immense challenges—some of which are new, but most of which are well known. Together, the report of the Withers review and the committee’s report offer opportunities to address such challenges, even though the financial situation is unlikely to change. I hope that we will seize that opportunity.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to winding-up speeches. There is absolutely no time in hand. I call Martin Whitfield. You have up to six minutes, Mr Whitfield.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I am grateful for the guidance on time, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I thank the Education, Children and Young People Committee, the clerks and the witnesses for the preparation of an excellent report. It speaks volumes about the committee’s tenacity that it has started to unpick one of the most complex webs that exists in the education sector across Scotland. Many of its conclusions are very broadly welcomed.

The Labour Party welcomes the detailed investigation. It is essential that the Scottish Government learns lessons from that, because Scotland needs its colleges. It needs colleges that are financially sustainable and can deliver for our students. There is a very welcome change in approach from the current minister in reaching out across the chamber to seek solutions, and from John Swinney, on focusing on the need for learner-centred delivery. It is only through learner-centred delivery that we can offer our young people and the not-so-young people who use our college facilities the sort of future that we need them to have and that they deserve from us.

There have been some fascinating contributions. I want to try to deal with some of those rather than with broader strategic measures, because I always seem to fail to give recognition to many good speeches when I am burdened with summing up.

If Sue Webber, who made an excellent opening speech, Graeme Dey and Stephen Kerr will forgive me, I will turn to Willie Rennie’s contribution on the question of the mental health challenge. I will reiterate the question to which he sought an answer from the minister, on when consideration of funding will conclude. We are but weeks away from the end—from termination of employment. For a relatively small amount of money, the service that people provide not only to students but to the wider college community with regard to mental health, particularly after the challenges of Covid, is exceptional.

Willie Rennie also mentioned the RSE report. Indeed, a number of members have mentioned it. Some of the conclusions have been drawn into many of the speeches that we have heard—in particular the final conclusion, on how important it is for colleges, the Scottish Qualifications Authority and whatever comes after it

“to work closely with other tertiary providers and businesses to ensure that ... qualifications ... are fit for purpose and enhance routes and opportunities for articulation.”

There is something in the Withers report about using language that speaks to our colleges being held in parity of esteem with universities in other ways. There is an opportunity to start to make inroads into the perception of inequality that exists.

Ruth Maguire made a powerful contribution. In particular, she referred to paragraph 163 of the committee’s report, which is about the need for colleges to serve our communities. Colleges were, historically, at the heart of our communities. Because of the historical changes, there are fewer of them, but the communities that they served are still there. I think of the number of young people who struggle with the formal education that school expects them to have who absolutely flourish when they go to college because they find themselves to be trusted by people who are there to be with them when they learn. They are trusted to ask difficult and complex questions.

That speaks in part to John Swinney’s very helpful intervention on use of technology. A lot of what our colleges offer—I am thinking of practical subjects in particular—is for face-to-face discussion. They say, “Don’t put your thumb in the vice”, or, “Don’t do this.” One of the great strengths of our college sector is that it can provide that in a supportive environment that perhaps some young people—and, indeed, older people—have not found in other venues.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Martin Whitfield for giving way. Given his experience of the school education system, he probably recognises that although school does not work out for some young people as perfectly as it does for most young people, the college sector does. We should be open to the concept of ensuring that young people are in the correct educational setting.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I thank John Swinney for that powerful intervention. We all—the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament, and people across the whole of Scotland—need to recognise that one vehicle does not fit all. The college sector offers flexibility and support to people who were challenged at school and who are challenged in their communities to measure their own worth. We should use every vehicle that is available to us. As we heard in relation to careers guidance, we should open the eyes of our young people to the potential of college, because although they may be disillusioned with school, there is a different way and it might well be the best way for them.

I am very conscious of time, but I want to mention Carol Mochan’s powerful speech—in particular, because of the helpful intervention from the minister and his promise in relation to that guidance and the leadership from the Scottish Government that has been called for. We heard, in that intervention, a promise to provide that leadership.

I welcome the committee’s report and the role that our colleges play; they are an essential element in the future of so many people in Scotland—be they currently at school, in jobs, or retraining and seeking other skills for the future. Colleges deserve our full support.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

As shadow minister for further and higher education, I am honoured to close today’s debate on the college regionalisation inquiry on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.

I thank the committee for producing a detailed and much-needed report. Ten years on from college regionalisation, it is vital that we understand how it has been working in practice and examine the position of Scotland’s colleges today. As convener of the cross-party group on skills, I regularly see presentations that make it clear just how big a role our colleges will have to play in the coming years as we move towards a greener economy.

Before moving on to my thoughts on the committee’s report, I will take some time to reflect on some of the speeches that we have heard this afternoon. My colleague Stephen Kerr spoke about how important the college sector is and how many different challenges it faces. He also talked about how colleges drive social mobility for many young people who might otherwise struggle to achieve their true potential.

My colleague Meghan Gallacher spoke about the real-life impacts of college cuts and how young people are being told that they can no longer take up the college places that they worked so hard for in the first place. My colleague Liz Smith spoke about how many businesses are concerned that their employees do not have the right skills and about the role that colleges play in equipping young people with the ability to harness basic skills.

The committee’s convener, Sue Webber, spoke about colleges being chronically underfunded and highlighted how critical they are to the success of our economy. The minister, Graeme Dey, spoke about the sector having a bright future. However, I fail to see that happening unless the Scottish Government makes some drastic changes to the funding. I hope that he stays true to his word and engages with members across the parties to find the right solutions.

Willie Rennie highlighted the need to make drastic changes urgently and to provide colleges with direction now, as they make those decisions on courses. Pam Duncan-Glancy talked about how colleges are limited in what they can do with the money that they have and the fear of losing the potential of regionalisation. Ruth Maguire spoke about the positive local example of Ayrshire College’s project search course, which has done well in preparing students for work.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I cannot mention all members’ contributions. However, what I heard from members of all parties was the importance of the role that colleges play in our economy—today, tomorrow and in the future.

One of the biggest concerns, which we have repeatedly heard about this afternoon, is the financial position that Scotland’s colleges find themselves in today.

The SNP Government likes to talk about how vital colleges are to a just transition and to the national strategy for economic transformation, yet it short-changes our world-class institutions at every corner. That is clear from the Government’s recent U-turn on college funding, which removed the equivalent of £1 million from every college in Scotland. Shona Struthers, the chief executive of Colleges Scotland, called the decision “inexplicable”.

I cannot speak for other members, but I have received countless emails from students and lecturers who are concerned about the state of Scotland’s colleges. One student wrote:

“the future standards of my education, access to courses, support on every aspect of my college experience is at risk due to these cuts which will significantly cut the workforce on both the lecturing and support staff side”.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

I do not have enough time—sorry.

She then asked me to intervene to prevent the compulsory redundancy of college staff. I have tried to do that—I have raised the matter on five separate occasions, but it has repeatedly fallen on deaf ears. That is baffling to me because, on most occasions, the Government is merely being asked to intervene less and to ring fence less. That is not just my view; that is quite clearly reflected in the Withers review.

In his recent review of the skills delivery landscape, James Withers wrote about the unnecessary complexity of the funding streams and education bodies. He urged the Scottish Government to take a clearer leadership role in post-school learning policy, which many others have called for today.

The publication of the Withers review is yet more evidence of the need to streamline the current funding process for Scotland’s colleges. The current system is holding the institutions back.

It is clear that, in the current environment, colleges will inevitably fall short of their potential. Buildings are falling to pieces, staff numbers are dwindling and there is limited financial flexibility. The SNP Government needs to listen to the committee and engage with the recommendations in its report. It needs to give our colleges the flexibility and the strategic direction that they are asking for, and it needs to commit to properly funding our colleges so that they are truly equipped to carry out the vital role that will be asked of them in the coming years.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Terrific stuff is happening in our colleges—we should highlight that much more. Personally, I have been hugely impressed, particularly with the work of Edinburgh College and with the innovative efforts of West Lothian College in the health and outdoor learning areas.

Questions around budgets and funding to support colleges to continue their work are quite legitimate. The Government is operating in a difficult financial environment. Throughout the committee’s inquiry, we have heard about the financial challenges that colleges have been facing. Both are truths. However, as James Withers has acknowledged, there is no lack of investment in the skills in the post-school education landscape. The question is: how should we best make that work for the learner, the economy and the public purse as we look to the future?

As configured, the landscape is not financially sustainable. Therefore, it is a public sector imperative that we reimagine and reform post-school education and skills. We will need to work alongside employers, institutions, learners and other partners if we are to continue to deliver for Scotland as a whole.

Let me again be clear: I agree with the gist of what James Withers has said. Billions of pounds are invested in the system annually. That level of public investment comes with a real obligation to make sure that we are getting the maximum bang for our buck for our learners, and, within all that, there is a need to deliver a sustainable future for our colleges.

Throughout the development of the purpose and principles of post-school education, research and skills, which we anticipate will be published quite shortly, we have heard about the adaptability and the agility of colleges in responding to the needs of their learners and the local and national economies. Their work with other actors in the system, including employers, sector bodies, training providers and higher education institutions, demonstrates the benefits of collaborative working to provide opportunities that best serve learners. The purpose and principles document is about creating a framework to deliver better social and economic outcomes from the investment that we currently make in post-school education, research and skills. We are working closely with individual colleges, unions, Colleges Scotland and the College Development Network in developing the principles. We know that the sector is ambitious and is capable of the reform that is needed to ensure that we have a post-school education, research and skills system that is fit for the future.

As I mentioned in my opening speech, we published the Withers review last week. As we have heard, the review includes recommendations that, taken together, would amount to radical reform of our post-school education and skills system. As I said, I am persuaded by the case for reform that James Withers has made, and I appreciate that the time to make the change is now. However, I also know that his recommendations chime with those that are coming through from other work, such as the Hayward review of qualifications and the development of the purpose and principles framework. It is important that the approach that we take in implementing any change is considered, planned and, critically, sustainable.

I will now focus on members’ contributions. Willie Rennie asked about college pay policy. The sector is required to have regard to public sector pay policy, but it is not directly bound by it. I recognise that, regrettably, compulsory redundancies might be unavoidable in some circumstances. However, in my letter to principals and chairs last week, I reminded them of my expectations in relation to the approach that they should take on that issue.

On the wider point, I noted Willie Rennie’s carefully chosen words about funding. He will recognise that money cannot be spent over and over again. The teachers pay settlement has placed additional pressures on the education budget. There is no money available for colleges without cuts having to be made elsewhere, and I know that Mr Rennie, given his genuine interest in the subject, would not favour cuts in relation to early years or tackling the attainment gap.

Mr Rennie also made a point about delays in bringing forward the student mental health plan. Let me take part of the responsibility for that. I am anxious to ensure that what we bring forward is absolutely deliverable and does not place unreasonable demands on colleges and universities. As part of that, we are taking a little more time to test the proposals with stakeholders. I would rather take a little more time to get this right than get it wrong.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I appreciate the minister’s efforts in that regard. However, I am still confused about the policy on compulsory redundancies. I thought that that was a hard line for the Government—I thought that it had said that no public sector worker would face compulsory redundancy. The position now seems to be different—why is that?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Mr Rennie is conflating two things, as I have explained.

I will move on to the issue relating to the Glasgow regional board, which Pam Duncan-Glancy highlighted eloquently. She and Willie Rennie called for the board’s abolition. The future of governance in that region is a live consideration. As recently as last week, I met Janie McCusker, the chair of the regional board, to hear her perspective, and I have heard the perspective of members. I understand the arguments about the cost savings and reducing what is seen as bureaucracy—there is a view that the board represents an additional and unnecessary level of governance. However, such a move would require legislation, so that action could not be taken immediately. In addition, if we took such action, I, as the minister, would want to be confident that an appropriate level of oversight was in place in Glasgow.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I do not have time—I am sorry.

Stephen Kerr talked about the statistics and the unfair picture that is painted of our colleges. I entirely agree with him on that, as he knows. The SFC is carrying out an in-depth review of the statistical publications and the background to the matter, which will conclude by the end of 2023, and other work is being done alongside that. I say to Mr Kerr gently that it was my predecessor who launched that review, which is now encouraged by me, given that he was maligning him unfairly earlier.

Not for the first time, Ruth Maguire raised the issue of flexibility, and she was right to do so. However, I hope that she will appreciate that the Scottish Government and Colleges Scotland are still working up ideas and talking them through. It would be wrong of me to highlight some of the ideas today, but I give her and other members the assurance that the Government is going into this with an open mind, with a view to seeing what can be done in the very short term and beyond. We are looking not just at resources but at how we might address some of the capital issues, particularly in relation to achieving net zero.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I want to make progress, if I may—sorry.

Liz Smith made a telling and considered contribution, particularly on the Withers review. I agree with her that Withers makes very valid points, particularly the ones that she highlighted. However, I hope that she will understand that I want to spend a bit of time on these recommendations, because we have to get this right. We have a fantastic opportunity to reimagine the landscape, and we need to be sure that we are doing the right thing.

Bob Doris highlighted a point—which has stayed with me from the committee’s evidence taking—about the difference in funding for colleges and universities at SCQF levels 7 and 8. I have asked my officials to examine that issue with the Scottish Funding Council and to come back to me with advice. As we consider how we will respond to the recommendations in the Withers review and through the purpose and principles, there will be opportunities to ensure that the funding model across the system is administered to take better account of those issues. Bob Doris is right that the costs of dealing with that issue are extremely substantial, but he makes a valid point.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The minister is about to conclude.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party


On Ross Greer’s point about an independent chair, that is an option for us to consider and it will be considered in due course.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Ben Macpherson to conclude the debate on behalf of the Education, Children and Young People Committee.

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

It is my pleasure to close the debate on behalf of the committee. As someone who joined the committee after the publication of the report, I have had many insights from the debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to colleagues. I pay tribute to all colleagues on the committee and to those who were previously on it, including the minister and Kaukab Stewart, the previous deputy convener, for their work on the inquiry. I also pay tribute to other members for their contributions today. I join the convener, who spoke earlier, in thanking all those who shared their knowledge and experience as part of the inquiry.

The committee considered how colleges have been impacted by the regionalisation process and the consequential mergers and how they are performing now. In its report, the committee highlighted the impact of colleges as they deliver the multiple facets of their role, which include helping to deliver the national economic strategy, providing opportunities for lifelong learning and driving social mobility. I have been interested to hear members’ contributions highlighting how colleges in their areas and more broadly have been delivering on those three main themes.

A number of members commented on colleges delivering the national economic strategy and using the increased platform that they now have concerning economic development in their regions. For example, Stephanie Callaghan talked about innovation and creativity, and Meghan Gallacher talked about how colleges are helping people to fulfil their potential.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

Is the member concerned about the closure of student accommodation on campuses, particularly at New College Lanarkshire in my region, which has a detrimental impact on young people in rural areas?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I appreciate that the member is raising that issue in their capacity as a regional MSP. However, I am speaking in my capacity as deputy convener of the committee, so I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment on it.

Willie Rennie and Carol Mochan talked about the process of ensuring that colleges are accessible for those in rural areas, which is important. In an intervention, John Swinney highlighted the potential for digital accessibility and digital innovation to help more people access learning opportunities.

On the second theme of lifelong learning and upskilling the workforce, colleges, as institutions of scale, respond to their regions’ business and societal needs and prepare the workforce for jobs in new industries. Many members, including the minister, reflected on the James Withers report. Liz Smith talked about the importance of local economies, and Pam Gosal highlighted the journey to net zero and scaling up for the green economy.

The third area was social mobility from widening access to opportunities including but not limited to higher education. A number of members spoke about that. For example, Stephen Kerr highlighted that colleges are

“a catalyst for social mobility ”.

Pam Duncan-Glancy spoke of the success here in Edinburgh with regard to connections with the universities and about the connections between Glasgow colleges and employers. Martin Whitfield talked about the importance of lifelong learning and adult learners, Ruth Maguire talked about fair access and Bob Doris talked about coherent learning pathways.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour

I am grateful to Ben Macpherson for giving way on that point. On a slightly related point, one of the issues that was raised in the report is about access to data, which was picked up in the Government’s response, particularly in relation to free school meal entitlement. Did the committee consider the challenges with data, given the lack of applications for free school meals, which are provided from primary 1 to primary 5?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

I refer the member to the comments in the report about data, which I will also say something about shortly.

The committee found that the potential of colleges is being impacted by significant and on-going financial pressures and by a lack of flexibility, both financial and academic. In the cabinet secretary’s response, she set out flexibilities that the Scottish Funding Council has put in place for colleges, including lowering the minimum activity threshold while increasing the cost per credit, so that colleges do not lose funding should they need to decrease their activity. Appreciating the severe pressure on the public finances, I was grateful to hear the minister’s response in the exchange that he had with Pam Duncan-Glancy, in which he emphasised that the process will be shaped by colleges and that the Scottish Government will embrace proposals that come forward from them.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On the financial pressures, I think that we all acknowledge the scale of the challenges that are faced not just in colleges but across the public sector. Does Mr Macpherson believe that the Education, Children and Young People Committee might be able to consider, in taking forward some of the issues in the Withers review, how some of those financial challenges might be addressed in a collaborative way, perhaps using the committee as a forum where there can be honest dialogue about the realities of the public finances, with a focus on maintaining opportunities for aspiring learners in our college system?

Photo of Ben Macpherson Ben Macpherson Scottish National Party

As a member and deputy convener of the committee, I welcome that constructive suggestion and note that the convener will also have been listening, as will other members in the chamber. As we consider the work programme for the period ahead, we can certainly take forward that constructive suggestion, and I hope that the Government will continue to take forward consideration of the committee’s report, as well as the Withers report.

The committee made it clear in its report that colleges should have as much flexibility as possible to help them to respond to the challenges that they are facing. The committee welcomes the Scottish Funding Council’s engagement with its English counterparts to understand the financial flexibilities that English colleges have and how those might be applied in Scotland, but the committee stresses the need for urgency on the matter.

The report makes it clear that strengthening the college student associations and enhancing the student voice have been successes of regionalisation, which Bill Kidd talked about. During the inquiry, the committee also heard about the different funding models for student associations, from a fully independent model such as that at Edinburgh College, to an arm’s-length model such as that at Forth Valley College and a model that, in effect, treats the student association as a department of the college.

The committee also heard how the degree of financial independence, or the lack thereof, could affect how much student associations could challenge their principals and boards. Although the committee recognised that student associations should have flexibility as to how they are constituted, given the potential for disparity in their ability to challenge their boards and principals, the committee asked the Scottish Government to consider whether minimum standards should be set to ensure that they have appropriate levels of funding and independence in order to protect their ability to challenge. Sue Webber raised some of those points in her opening speech, as did Ross Greer.

As members across the chamber have highlighted, the committee’s report strongly supported the work that colleges are doing and celebrated the significant contribution that they make. However, the committee felt strongly that the data that is currently collected and published regarding completion rates at colleges does not accurately reflect the performance of colleges or, indeed, the performance of individual students.

Therefore, the committee welcomes the fact that the Scottish Funding Council has initiated the collection of students’ reasons for withdrawal from colleges and will work with Colleges Scotland and the College Development Network to improve the capture of student withdrawal data in future years to enable publication.

The committee heard evidence about the limitations of using postcode-level data—that is, the 20 per cent most deprived areas according to the Scottish index of multiple deprivation—as a tool for identifying disadvantage. It acknowledges the creation of the access data short-life working group earlier this year to improve that situation. That relates to the points that Martin Whitfield raised in an intervention.

I once again thank fellow committee members and all members who contributed to the debate for their remarks and suggestions. I also thank the Scottish Government for its feedback and reflections. The committee will continue to welcome any further thoughts that the Government has on the report.

We should all welcome the key role that colleges play in Scotland and agree that their continuing resilience is vital to Scotland’s economy and society.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

That concludes the debate on college regionalisation.