Colleges (Support)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:19 pm on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green 4:19, 8 May 2024

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-13091, in the name of Liam Kerr, on supporting Scotland’s colleges.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative 4:26, 8 May 2024

Scotland’s colleges are the linchpin on which the future of Scotland depends. That is perhaps a bold statement, but it is backed up by a Fraser of Allander Institute report from 2023 that states, inter alia, that Scotland’s colleges generate additional value worth £20 billion for the Scottish economy. Each graduate delivers an additional £55,000 boost to productivity over their working life. The total public sector cost of investing in those learners is roughly a third of the cumulative tax revenues that are generated. Scotland’s colleges also directly employ about 11,000 staff, providing local economic boosts.

That means that colleges add huge value—much more than they cost—to the national economy and local economies. However, evidence shows that they also deliver faster sustainable economic growth by, for example, supplying employers with a skilled workforce. They provide better employment prospects, with increased earning potential; they result in a lower likelihood of unemployment; and they have a positive effect on health and wellbeing, leading to better physical health outcomes, longer life expectancy and improved social mobility.

How does the Scottish National Party Government recognise, to quote a line from its manifesto,

“the vital role of Scotland’s colleges”?

Well, there have been years of flat cash settlements, and there has been a cut to the net college resource budget of almost £59 million. There is a reported nearly £0.5 billion funding gap over three years—although the minister disputed that last week but could not say what he thinks the figure is—and the figure might well be higher due to capital costs.

That has led to Audit Scotland warning that

“Risks to the college sector’s financial sustainability have increased”

and to the Scottish Funding Council identifying three colleges with significant cash-flow issues— although, as the Public Audit Committee heard, the number is actually four. According to the SFC, that puts 21 per cent of the college workforce at risk by 2026 and, according to College Employers Scotland, it is

“directly impacting resource allocation to teaching and learning and thereby impacting learners and their educational experience.”

It is an appalling situation, but what colleges, students and employers fear the most is epitomised by the Government’s amendment, because, despite all the reports and all the warm words and praise, the Government is missing in action.

Last week, in a topical question about the state of Scotland’s colleges under the SNP, I asked how the Government’s priorities might need to change. Richard Leonard asked whether the most marginalised bear the brunt of the situation, and Pam Duncan-Glancy asked whether the Government would intervene in a dispute. In response to each question, the minister, diligently reading from a pre-prepared script, talked about Opposition parties demanding more money in the budget, but we did not.

During last night’s debate on colleges, the minister blamed Opposition parties, Brexit and the Tories, but he failed to acknowledge that the blame lies entirely with the occupants of the Government benches. My authority for that statement is the Education, Children and Young People Committee, which, in its “College regionalisation inquiry” report of March 2023, reported that it was

“concerned that colleges are currently making decisions to respond to the challenging financial climate without clear overarching strategic direction from the Scottish Government as to their purpose and what they must prioritise”.

Those colleges are still waiting.

In 2020, the Cumberford-Little report made a number of recommendations that might have begun to address the situation, and which were not based on funding. Four years on, however, there is no substantive implementation or action, except perhaps that the Government, instead of expanding the flexible workforce development fund, has abandoned it.

The Withers review reported about a year ago and made 15 recommendations to reform the post-school learning and skills landscape, but we still do not know what the Government will do or when. The national bargaining system, which is imbued with a

“debilitatingly low level of trust”,

was the subject of the Strathesk Resolutions “Lessons Learned” report, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government. Recommendations were submitted to the Scottish Government in March 2022. What has happened at Government level since? Absolutely nothing.

Under the current funding model, under which colleges cannot borrow to, for example, renew digital infrastructure in estates or retain end-of-year surpluses to mitigate the next crisis, there exists, according to the Education, Children and Young People Committee,

“a general lack of flexibility to be able to respond to economic and societal needs and priorities.”

That is why the committee recommended

“that the Scottish Government ... give colleges as many financial and operational flexibilities as possible”.

It noted that that

“could include, but not be limited to: flexibility for year end, flexibility on SFC outcomes and flexibility in terms of access to additional funds.”

That was last year. Has it happened? No.

Four years ago, the Scottish Funding Council said—

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

If we have no extra time, I will, regrettably, not take Michelle Thomson’s intervention.

Four years ago, the SFC said that because of

“tensions in governance and accountability structures, contested costs and funding authority and unclear outcome gains for students and taxpayers”,

the current structure of the governance in multi-college regions was “not tenable”. Four years on, has the “not tenable” structure been dealt with? No, it has not.

I will take a very quick intervention from Michelle Thomson, if she is ready.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

Oh, I am sorry—I did not see that the member was allowing me to intervene. I greatly appreciate it.

I was merely going to make the point that I, too, am greatly in favour of fiscal flexibility, in particular around capital expenditure, end-year flexibility and consulting heavily with the Scottish Fiscal Commission. Why does the member want that for colleges and not for his own Government?

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I think that we need to stay on the point, in particular when time is constrained. The fact is that colleges and their talented students and staff are crucial to the future of Scotland and all its people, yet this Government surveys the damage to which its failure to lead from the front has led and fails to come up with any vision, strategy or meaningful action. Instead, it lodges amendments that represent an utter abdication of ministerial responsibilities.

The Government must act now to address the present and future of our colleges. Otherwise, in a hollowed-out sector, who does the minister think will step up to tackle economic downturns, upskill and reskill, mitigate the skills gap and support lifetime learning? If this minister and this Government will not go beyond warm words on colleges to saving them, they should stand aside and let in someone who will, before it is too late.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Scottish Government’s approach to funding and resourcing Scotland’s colleges must change in response to the existential threat that its previous approach has created; notes the role that colleges play in powering the regional and national economy, while operating without the necessary flexibility and support that they need, and recognises that colleges are vital to Scotland’s economy and play a crucial role in supporting learners, creating flexible routes into employment, developing a skilled workforce and delivering sustainable economic growth.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party 4:33, 8 May 2024

The First Minister has been clear that the Government that he leads will be committed to attempting to engage constructively with other parties in the chamber and finding areas of agreement where that is possible.

That sets a clear expectation of the approach to be adopted not only by ministers, but by Opposition parties. In a Parliament where no party has a majority, there is a duty on us all to work, if not together, in a considered and reasonable way, treating issues on merit. In this new environment, Government cannot impose its will on Parliament. Equally, the other parties need to decide whether they will oppose simply for the sake of it, set out wish lists with no identified path to delivering or look to engage constructively.

In responding to the Conservative motion, I seek to rise to the challenge that the First Minister has set those of us on the SNP side of the chamber. The motion talks about inadequate funding of colleges and calls for us to at least look at how we could improve matters.

Let me acknowledge that the budgetary settlement for colleges is not what I would want it to be—although, in the interests of balance, it is worth noting that, over the past 10 years, we have increased the college resource budget by more than £121 million in cash terms.

I do not want to get into a to-ing and fro-ing here, however. There are lots of things that I could throw back at Liam Kerr, but we have rehearsed those arguments before.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

Apologies. I am not going to, because I have only five minutes.

I want to focus on the substance of the issue for colleges: the challenges and opportunities for them. Last week, I acknowledged that there are challenges facing colleges—of course there are. I also accept that there is a gap in relation to what the colleges would have had at their disposal now if funding had risen in line with inflation over the past few years.

If the Conservatives believe that we ought to have been raising the funding in line with inflation, they must presumably take serious issue with the fact that, despite the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointing to real-terms growth in public spending, the core block grant is still less in real terms in 2024-25 compared with 2022-23 by around £500 million. That is the gap that has arisen in just one year, and it exceeds the alleged shortfall in college funding that has been claimed. The Conservatives must be even more troubled by forecasts that suggest that our block grant for capital is expected to reduce in real terms by almost 9 per cent by 2027-28. They cannot, on the one hand, insist that funding by the Scottish Government must rise by inflation and, on the other, accept that the funding of it should fall.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

I am afraid that the minister is rather missing the point. I specifically did not talk about funding; I talked about all the reports giving alternative solutions. If the Office for National Statistics classification were reviewed, colleges might build reserves. What is the minister’s view about that?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

The point, as Liam Kerr well knows, is that we are bringing to a head a lot of the outcomes and suggestions from the reports. I will try to cover that in this opening speech but also in closing. I think that Mr Kerr knows that that is the case.

We must find a way forward, taking account of some of the reports, ensuring that colleges are on a sustainable long-term footing. That is simply not going to be available from an injection of public cash that is not available to us. The reform programme that we are embarking on, which is driven by the reports, will place colleges at the heart of post-16 skills delivery.

We are acting on what the reviews have told us about the need for change to ensure that our learning and education system is fit for the future. For example, the Government will take a central role in the delivery of skills planning at a national level, recognising its central role in shaping the skills need. In so doing, we will work with the public, private and third sectors to ensure that the offer is fit for purpose. Colleges will be central to that, and we are working directly with them on it already. The development of a colleges first principle for certain apprenticeship areas, which Glasgow Clyde College principal Jon Vincent is leading on, is a good example of what I am talking about. We have college representatives in the room as we work with employers on identifying skills shortages and how colleges’ offer can be better aligned to the needs of employers and the economy.

It is important that decisions to fund Scotland’s college sector are made facing forwards, looking towards what we need both now and in the future, so that decisions are not reactive, and that they take account of the reviews. That will require thoughtful leadership from across the sector and beyond—it is important that we are up front about that. I can assure the Parliament that the Scottish Government is working extremely hard with stakeholders such as the Scottish Funding Council and Colleges Scotland to work through this period together. I was due to sit down with Colleges Scotland and college chairs in Stirling this afternoon as part of that on-going engagement. The scheduling of this debate forced the cancellation of those sessions, but they will be rearranged.

Regardless of who holds this post following the ministerial reshuffle that is under way, I know that the Scottish Government will remain committed to that close working, which I believe will lead to the shaping of a college sector that can deliver local and national priorities.

I move amendment S6M-13091.3, to leave out from “agrees” to end and insert:

“recognises that colleges are vital to Scotland’s economy and play a crucial role in supporting learners, creating flexible routes into employment, developing a skilled workforce and delivering sustainable economic growth; understands that the process of post-school education reform provides opportunities to further enhance the role that Scotland’s colleges play in the economy and society, including enhancing their role in developing the green skills that Scotland needs for the just transition, and agrees that any proposals for changes to funding must be clear from where else in the Scottish Government’s budget the resource would be taken, particularly in the context of 14 years of UK Government austerity.”

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour 4:38, 8 May 2024

Just yesterday, we had the opportunity to debate colleges in Scotland, and I am pleased that we have the same chance to do so again today. In my role I have had the privilege of meeting college staff and principals who are going above and beyond for their college. I have heard lecturers and support staff up and down the country share with passion stories about the subjects they teach and the students they empower. I have heard about the ways in which colleges serve their communities and build our workforce of the future.

Incredible college staff and talented students work day in, day out, to do all that, but they are doing so in the face of a Government that has, for 17 years and several education secretaries—including John Swinney—let them down.

Members will have read the recent articles in The Herald that show just how bad it is, and I would like to take a moment to put on the record my thanks to The Herald and James McEnaney and his team for shining a light on it. The reports highlight what trade unions, staff, colleges and students have been warning for years: Scotland’s colleges face an eye-watering funding shortfall and the funding gap has real-life consequences, not least of which is the drop of more than 125,000 students attending college since 2008-09.

Let us remind ourselves who those students are. More than 40 per cent are over 25, a third come from the most deprived areas, 15 per cent are disabled, 17,000 are black and minority ethnic and 3,000 are care experienced. Colleges lift the glass, class and step ceilings that are in the way of opportunity, and we should support them, but they can do that only with the support of their Government.

Colleges cannot afford another day of inaction from the Government or lack of leadership from the minister. The situation has been called a burning platform. Audit Scotland has warned that colleges cannot deliver the same for less and Colleges Scotland has said that colleges have impossible choices ahead.

Here is what some of those impossible choices look like in reality. Staff in one college are saying that books are being taken out of the library and that student support, careers advisers and personal academic tutors are being cut. Courses are being cut in another college where senior-phase pupils go to study advanced highers in areas that we need people to be skilled in. There are campuses that are facing closure and students with fewer options.

Across Scotland, jobs are under threat. College Employers Scotland is saying that its members do not have the resource to negotiate the existing pay offer and industrial relations are hanging by a thread. Most worrying of all, the Public Audit Committee was told that four Scottish colleges might not survive the year.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Last night, Pam Duncan-Glancy’s colleague Richard Leonard made the interesting suggestion that the money that is currently being allocated by enterprise agencies in Scotland to arms dealers such as BAE Systems could be reallocated to Scotland’s colleges. That would generate a couple of million pounds a year. Is that the Labour Party’s official position? If so, it would certainly have the support of the Greens.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I thank the member for that intervention and note that he voted for the budget that has delivered savage cuts to colleges across Scotland, so I will take no lessons or suggestions from him on that.

I ask the minister today whether he is prepared for this to happen on his watch, or whether he is willing to step up. On funding, can he set out a timeline on the development and delivery of a new funding model for colleges, and will he deliver an emergency funding package to help voluntary redundancy schemes in the meantime? On buildings, will he reintroduce a buildings conditions survey to inform investment plans and to help colleges to deal with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete? On delivery, will he support colleges and principals to test ways of meeting their needs for the future? Will he provide direction on pay and say whether he accepts calls for pay to be in line with public sector pay and accepts that colleges need help to deliver that? Finally, on industrial relations, will he fix the flawed national machinery that is meant to govern it? Will he ensure that everyone involved gets facility and support time to engage properly? Will he get around the table with colleges and trade unions before the summer recess to facilitate a solution that will end the industrial dispute?

Those are questions that people in the sector need answers to. Yesterday, someone in the chamber said that they would not envy the position of the minister.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

You must conclude, Ms Duncan-Glancy.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

I would envy the position of the minister, because I would relish the opportunity to serve in government and make the changes that need to happen. Scottish Labour is ready to do that, even where the Government is not.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green 4:43, 8 May 2024

I will start with an admission that much of what I am about to say is exactly the same as what I said last night, when we covered similar issues.

The Scottish Greens and I believe that colleges have a critical role to play in building a fairer, greener Scotland and in delivering on the key missions on which we all agree, whether that is the climate action that is required to hit net zero or tackling child poverty. Education is a social and individual good. It can be genuinely transformational, but we should not pretend that a good education will remove all the structural inequalities that people face in society. It is a key ingredient to a successful society, but by success, I am not just talking about gross domestic product or even average incomes, although the latter are clearly important. A successful society is one in which we are collectively able to meet everybody’s needs and to give every individual the opportunity of a happy, healthy life.

The ability of our colleges to play their role in that has been hugely held back by a decade of chronic problems in industrial relations, in particular. It is an example of class inequality in this country that those problems have gone on for so long with so little attention, whether from political figures or the media, compared with far less frequent industrial action in schools or in the university sector.

What would the Scottish Greens do differently? For a start, I will not join in with the hypocrisy of those members who voted against raising more money for public services via progressive taxation or who did not propose any other alternative savings options but are somehow demanding more money. We have just seen an example of one Labour member making a proposal to reallocate money and that being slapped down by the Labour front bench.

There are other options that we can take. For a start, on fair work conditionality, the Scottish Funding Council should absolutely make it a condition that, for colleges to receive funding, they should eliminate zero-hours contracts and implement pay ratios and other fair work conditions. That would demonstrate to the lowest-paid staff in particular that they were valued.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I am afraid that I have only four minutes, so I will not be able to.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I will, given that Ms Duncan-Glancy took an intervention from me.

Photo of Pam Duncan-Glancy Pam Duncan-Glancy Labour

Ross Greer mentioned fair work and ending zero-hours contracts, so does he support Labour’s new deal for working people?

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I do not know whether Ms Duncan-Glancy has seen the news today, but her party has just watered down its new deal for working people, to the point that Unite the union has, I believe, described it as a grotesque betrayal. Therefore, she should take that up with her party leader this afternoon.

What we need to see is far more enforcement by the Scottish Funding Council of national fair work conditionality and of fair work conditions that are agreed at local level between individual colleges and unions. As far as I can tell, the outcome agreements that are supposed to include that are barely scrutinised by the Funding Council. There needs to be far more robust scrutiny.

I am proud of the fact that college boards must now include at least two trade union representatives—that policy was delivered by the Scottish Greens in our time in government. However, college governance overall needs to be strengthened to a far greater degree. I urge the minister to consider proposals to include local elected councillors on college boards, to ensure that colleges are rooted in their local community and that there is a connection between colleges and councils as two key drivers of local economies.

We need to consider the issues that have arisen in specific colleges such as City of Glasgow College, where the board has been unable or unwilling to provide the effective scrutiny of senior management that is required. It was only when the local industrial dispute was taken out of that local setting and addressed at a regional level that progress was made. I think that the proximity of board members to senior management was a key contributing factor in how protracted and distasteful that dispute became.

There are far more proposals that we could go through. We should move college principals into the chief executive pay framework element of the public sector pay policy. It is not right that a number of college principals in this country are paid more than the First Minister. We need to address the recommendations that were made in the Strathesk Resolutions report, which will require both sides to move out of their comfort zones.

There is so much more that we can do. As a Parliament of minorities, we now have the opportunity to come together on points of agreement and do that. I hope that we will seize that opportunity.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat 4:48, 8 May 2024

If only Ross Greer and his party had been in government for the past two and a half years, we might have seen a bit of a difference.

The Government’s policy on colleges has lacked coherence for some time. Let me provide a few examples. It created national pay bargaining and raised expectations of pay rises but failed to provide the funds for colleges to deliver that. In adopting a policy of no compulsory redundancies, it hinted that that policy applied to colleges, before excluding them from it. It proclaimed that colleges were a characteristically Scottish route to a degree, but it has cut their funds over the past 17 years. It has talked about skilling and reskilling, but it has cut student places. When Government funds were in short supply, it merged colleges and brought them closer to Government, while limiting their freedom to raise funds themselves.

The minister is trying his best to change that through his work on skills and apprenticeships, but he must recognise the weaknesses of the legacy that he has been handed. Colleges can be responsible for greater social mobility, for improving life chances, for economic growth and for meeting the skills needs of our transformed economy, but for that to be a success, there needs to be a change of Government priorities.

For the record, my party has repeatedly included colleges in our costed budget proposals, but those proposals have been rejected by successive finance secretaries. In that context, it would have been helpful if Ross Greer had used his previous influence in the Government to halt the £26 million cut to colleges instead of pretending today that the college cut had nothing to do with him and the Greens.

Although, technically, ministers have no direct role in pay negotiations, the intervention of the education secretary in the teachers’ pay dispute, which resulted in a cut to the colleges budget to pay for a pay rise for teachers, rubbed salt in the wound for college staff. The minister therefore has a duty to seek a resolution to the industrial disputes that have bedevilled the sector for a decade.

It is not all about money and industrial relations, however. I want to see the college school partnership grow to spread the use of qualifications such as foundation apprenticeships. I want to see greater skills and education intelligence so that we can meet the needs of employers today and future skills needs, and flexibility to meet that intelligence with support from qualification bodies, with co-ordination between colleges to ensure that specialist provision is maintained.

In my last minute, I want to raise concerns about changes at Scotland’s Rural College’s Elmwood campus in Cupar, in my constituency. Although most animal care courses have been saved from closure and the SRUC leadership tell me that they are committed to a future for Elmwood, I am concerned about the slow progress towards the new facilities that are planned to accommodate the provision. I have relayed my concerns to the principal, but it would be helpful if the minister could intervene too. I hope that he will be willing to do so and to perhaps comment on that point in his summing up. I want a thriving Elmwood campus as do staff, students and the wider community, and we have a lot of work to do to ensure that that happens.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Sue Webber Sue Webber Conservative 4:51, 8 May 2024

I have always been impressed by the work that is being done in our colleges. Those institutions are critical to the economic and social wellbeing of our country—for the development of a skilled workforce that is able to respond to new requirements and new opportunities in industries; for opportunities for people of all abilities to develop skills for life; and for successfully widening access to opportunities, including higher education.

As James Withers said,

“Scotland has all the ingredients of a world class education and skills system. And no ingredient is more important than our colleges ... It has never been more important to unlock the full potential of all our people.”

One third of our college students come from Scotland’s most deprived communities, which, put simply, means that colleges deliver education and skills development to parts of Scotland that other institutions just do not reach—

The SNP’s chronic underfunding of Scotland’s colleges has forced them into a precarious financial position, which impacts their ability to support learners and grow the economy.

Earlier this year, colleges, businesses and trade unions joined together to call on the Scottish Government to reinstate a vital training fund before it was deleted from the 2024-25 budget. The flexible workforce development fund has previously provided businesses with access to training and upskilling for staff, delivered through colleges and other partners. We heard in February that, if the £10 million fund is not reinstated, potentially more than 2,000 employers and 45,450 learners will miss out on training opportunities—what a tragedy.

I want to raise an issue about modern apprenticeships as a whole. Based on the SSVQ’s calculations, those people who are studying for a modern apprenticeship qualification in Scotland receive considerably less funding per head than those who do so in England. A barbering apprentice receives only £2,700, compared to £9,000 south of the border; a hospitality apprentice receives only half of what their counterpart in England receives. I understand that budgets are tight, but I hope that the minister can reiterate in his closing remarks why such a disparity in funding exists. Where on earth is Scotland’s apprenticeship levy money going?

The Education, Children and Young People Committee’s report on college regionalisation noted concern over a lack of overarching strategic direction from the Scottish Government. The report states:

The Committee is concerned that colleges are currently making decisions to respond to the challenging financial climate without clear overarching strategic direction from the Scottish Government as to their purpose and what they must prioritise ... As such, colleges are being asked to take decisions for the future, uncertain as to whether those decisions will be compatible with the Scottish Government’s vision.”

There were many other recommendations in the report, and I am very aware that the minister is aware of those recommendations, given that he was a member of the committee and helped to draft them, and given that the report was agreed unanimously.

Although I recognise the financial constraints that the Scottish Government is working within, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council must acknowledge the significant needs of the college sector and urgently take action to ensure that more capital investment can be levered into the sector.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

If I can contradict what I said at the start of my contribution, I ask where, if the member wants more money for the flexible workforce development fund and more money for colleges and apprenticeships, she suggests that we find it.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Please conclude, Ms Webber.

Photo of Sue Webber Sue Webber Conservative

I have a list of £55.5 million of opportunities if the minister wishes to hear it. We would not spend money on mobile phones for prisoners. We would not spend £46 million in the next year alone on the botched national care service. We would not spend £9 million on foreign embassies, and we would not spend £14,000 on trips for Air Miles Angus.

I gather from my sources that the previous First Minister instructed his Cabinet to get out and visit the colleges in their regions and constituencies, meet the students and staff and see at first hand the impact that colleges have on communities across the country. I would go further and ask every member of this Parliament to do so and to get behind and support the work of our colleges, which are the unsung heroes of our education sector.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party 4:56, 8 May 2024

I start by declaring an interest in that, a few years ago, I was part of a research study that contributed towards the eventual creation of UHI Shetland.

From the outset of being an MSP, I forged a close relationship with Forth Valley College. I have also spoken at events at City of Glasgow College. I can see that the huge investment in both colleges in recent years has enabled them to create world-standard learning environments, and they are not alone in that in Scotland.

Like many members in the chamber, I wish that the financial situation was different and that we could simply turn on a tap to invest more in Scotland’s colleges. However, thanks to the Tories, our capital budget has been cut, and we have to acknowledge that Brexit, among other Tory insanities, has created real problems for the education sector.

Let me consider Forth Valley College. It is Scotland’s first regional college, with state-of-the-art campuses across the central belt in Alloa, Falkirk and Stirling. It would not have had those state-of-the-art facilities without the support of the SNP Government. It welcomes 13,500 students per academic session, with 94 per cent of its learners progressing to further studies or employment. Critically, college funding nowadays is based on establishing outcome agreements with the Scottish Funding Council. Again, that is thanks to SNP Government reforms. It supports identification of the real economic and skills needs of the region that it serves and contributes to the college’s strategic, education, training and lifelong learning work.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Does the member think that moving to a single funding pot, rather than having different funding pots with different reporting, rules and bureaucracies, is the way to go?

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

I am not against looking at means of funding. I will look at efficiencies in funding and how we can do things better, but I suspect that the answer is more complex than a simple political line.

I will return to what I was talking about. The latest version of the strategic direction for Forth Valley College was published in February this year. Reiterating my point about outcomes, I always welcome that approach. Colleges throughout Scotland do a remarkable job in addressing our economic needs and providing opportunities for all, particularly our young people. They are a safe and welcoming learning environment for people with disabilities and for older students who are continuing their lifelong learning journey. They have areas of expertise that attract students from beyond the region, including from overseas, and they have strong articulation links with universities.

Our college teaching staff are the best paid in the United Kingdom, and that reflects the priority that we give to investing in colleges. They will be a key player as we transition to a net zero economy, and, as the constituency MSP for Falkirk East, I note that Forth Valley college will have a particularly important role in supporting Grangemouth to meet the challenges of the future.

Of course, there are challenges to be faced, not least in funding but in other areas, too. The world is changing so fast that the most successful economies are fleet of foot and are able to keep pace with technology and innovation. Furthermore, individuals are best equipped to cope with change where they have been able to maximise their development opportunities.

On a point of agreement, I have spoken in the past of the Cumberford-Little report, which advocated a move from a focus on competence to one on excellence to meet the needs of modern economies. I continue to agree strongly with that, and I consider it an area where further progress can be made.

I welcome today’s debate on colleges, but it is a somewhat lazy motion presented by the Tories, who seem blind to all the problems that Tory policies in the UK have created in recent years.

Let us support our colleges and ditch the Tories.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour 5:01, 8 May 2024

Yesterday afternoon, the Minister for Veterans and Further and Higher Education came along to Parliament to try to tell us that Government intervention in the long-running pay dispute in our colleges—which is about to escalate—would

“fundamentally alter the nature of the voluntary national bargaining process”.—[Official Report, 07 May 2024; c61.]

I ask him gently this afternoon: did Government intervention in the junior doctors dispute fundamentally alter the nature of the bargaining process? Did Government intervention in the agenda for change NHS workers dispute fundamentally alter the nature of the bargaining process? What about our teachers and local government workers—did Government intervention there fundamentally alter the nature of the voluntary national bargaining process?

In the same speech yesterday, the minister accused Opposition politicians of sitting on their hands. You couldn’t make it up. He was speaking on a motion that I—an Opposition politician—had lodged, and today we are debating a motion that was lodged by the Conservatives—an Opposition party. The only people who are sitting on their hands in this Parliament are this minister and this Government. [ Applause .] So, I say to him again that there is nothing more corrupting in politics than remaining inactive and feigning impotence. What the Government is doing to resolve the Educational Institute of Scotland dispute is not even second rate; it is non-existent.

I have to put on the record, as well, that the very first speech by an SNP minister in the Swinney era was the most anti-trade union Government speech I have heard in Parliament in a long time. The Minister for Further and Higher Education said that colleges were

“within their rights”

to cut the pay of lecturers who are simply working to contract—that it was perfectly legal. What about the Government’s commitment to fair work? What about the promotion of good industrial relations? What about the morality of it?

This debate is about what kind of society and what kind of economy we need. If there is to be a just transition as we decarbonise the economy, it will require the reskilling of many workers, and most of them will get that not from a university degree but from active vocational training. And there will be a continuous need for reskilling, over and over again; for lifelong learning, to which our further education colleges will be pivotal.

Let me finish with the words of the great American socialist Eugene Debs, who said:

“When I rise, it will be with the ranks, not from the ranks. Full opportunity for full development is the unalienable right of all.”

That is what this debate on further education is about: whether people get the opportunity or not, whether our colleges expand or contract and whether working-class communities have opportunities that expand or contract, and it is about whether we value the people who make those opportunities possible.

Colleges are crucial to our economic wellbeing, but they are critical to our social progress, too, so it is the minister who needs to be realistic. He needs to end his obstinacy and complacency and find—from somewhere—some vigour and ingenuity. Above all, if values drive budget choices, this Government should re-evaluate our further education colleges, starting by properly investing in the people who work in them. If where the money goes is a reflection of the Government’s values, it should start valuing further education.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative 5:05, 8 May 2024

It is always a pleasure to follow Richard Leonard. In fact, I have worn my only red tie as tribute to that privilege. I do not like to disagree with Pam Duncan-Glancy, but I do not envy the minister, who, frankly, I have a personal regard for. He has come to the chamber to defend the SNP Government’s stewardship of Scotland’s colleges and that is pretty much mission impossible, because he knows the impact of his Government’s 17-year programme of cuts—including some really brutal cuts in the college sector—and he knows that that pattern of the past 17 years is continuing in the current financial year to the tune of £26 million.

Those cuts have had a significant impact on the sector’s capability to upskill Scotland’s workforce at the very moment in our economic journey when we need those skills. The description that has been given of the college sector by various speakers in the debate, on both the Conservative side of the chamber and the Labour side, paints a dismal picture of what the SNP has done to Scotland’s colleges.

Make no mistake about it—here I find common cause with Richard Leonard—the college sector is a key driver of equality of opportunity and it is an engine for economic growth. The cuts of the past 17 years and the cuts of the current financial year must be reversed. I know that the minister will stand up at any moment and recite his famous and favourite lines, “Where are you going to find the money from? What are you going to cut in order to reverse those cuts?” However, it is the job of a Scottish minister to set policy priorities, and if the Government has lost the will to set political priorities and has lost the ambition to put Scotland’s economy and its people first, it should move aside to let in a different Government of Scotland—one that has that ambition for our country and its people. If he uses those well-worn lines, which are so carefully crafted and consistently repeated by the Scottish ministers about spending, that is almost a tacit admission that the SNP has failed to properly prioritise education and skills.

As the minister himself said, this is not where he wants the college sector to be. I say amen to that. Let us change it. If we want to tackle intergenerational poverty and worklessness, improve national productivity and create greater equality of opportunity, we should not cut education and skills but invest in them. Therefore, I have four things to ask the minister, if he would be so kind as to respond to them. I think that all of them are positive.

First, will the minister commit to driving momentum on the delivery of the recommendations in the Withers review? I hear voices in the college sector and elsewhere in the skills sector saying that there has been a loss of momentum around the recommended reforms and, as has already been said, we are coming up to the first anniversary of the publication of the Withers review. Reform is needed more today than ever before.

Secondly, will the minister recognise that we need to have an open and honest conversation about what is being delivered for £3.2 billion in the education and skills budget? There is no point in talking about the size of budgets without talking about what is being delivered. The Withers review makes a good start at having that dialogue—that open, transparent and accountable discussion about what is being delivered. It is not enough just to talk about sums of money—it is about what is actually coming out at the other end.

Thirdly, I ask the minister whether, in his heart of hearts, he knows that the current system of funding colleges is overly complicated, bureaucratic and wasteful—because it is. There are too many pots, too much needless reporting and too much micromanagement. By all means, agree to deliverable outcomes with the colleges, but let us leave it to the colleges to deliver them.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

You must conclude, Mr Kerr.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

My fourth and last point is about the colleges’ estate. The fact is that the situation has gone on for years; it is not about one year’s capital budget, but about several accumulated years of underfunding.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

You must conclude, Mr Kerr.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I will conclude by saying this. How is the minister going to deal with the seven colleges that have RAAC on their campuses? What is he going to do about the state of those colleges’ estates?

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Thank you, Mr Kerr. I call Ruth Maguire, who is the final speaker in the open debate.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party 5:10, 8 May 2024

Colleges are institutions that deliver on multiple critical fronts, providing opportunities that allow our people to develop skills and to live more independently, and that allow others to take their first steps back into formal education, which helps some who are furthest away from the job market. They 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 growth of our economy. Even with all the challenges that the education sector is facing, we have to be proud that our colleges and universities are among the best in the world and we must acknowledge the achievement of their learners.

I recognise, as does the Scottish Government, the range of financial challenges that colleges and universities are managing. Although the 2024-25 budget has tried to minimise the impact on allocations, teaching and student support, fiscal constraints felt by the UK Government’s real-terms cuts have left Scotland facing catastrophic underinvestment for our public sector. Barnett consequentials have fallen in real terms. Those cuts are not insignificant—taking into account the gross domestic product inflator, they equate to an 8.4 per cent reduction over a two-year period. I therefore welcome the £2 billion investment by the Scottish Government in Scotland’s colleges and universities. I also welcome the commitment to protect the right to free tuition and the continuation of widening access for all in a challenging financial climate.

The reckless Tory Brexit has also taken a toll on our education sector—[ Interruption .] Conservative members are groaning. We are groaning about Brexit most of the time. The UK is no longer able to take part in the Erasmus exchange programme. Scottish colleges have long-established relationships across the European Union and many, such as City of Glasgow College and West College Scotland, have taken part in Erasmus-funded projects or have been awarded the Erasmus charter for higher education.

Professor Sarah Prescott from the Royal Society of Edinburgh concluded that the impact of Brexit on the student experience was multifaceted, from the

“withdrawal of Erasmus funding to the concurrent decline in student mobility, equal opportunity and recruitment of students from the European Union.”

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Can the member help us to understand what impact a £24 million cut to lifelong learning will have on the student experience?

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I think that we are operating in really difficult times.

By contrast, colleges and universities secured 56 per cent less funding from the Turing scheme than they received through Erasmus, which is equivalent to a cut of more than £7 million. It is clear to see which Government is creating the challenges for colleges and universities.

The Scottish Funding Council reported that, during the academic year 2021-22, while negotiating the cost of living crisis and public health measures during the pandemic, 86 per cent of college leavers found positive destinations within six months of graduating.

Colleges are vital to Scotland’s economic success. We have to prioritise opportunities to develop knowledge, skills, values and attributes that enable Scotland’s students to fulfil their potential.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

We move to winding-up speeches.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green 5:12, 8 May 2024

I start with an apology to the convener of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, Sue Webber, for not taking her intervention. Believe it or not, I was enjoying her contribution to the debate, because she included specific proposals for areas that the Conservatives would cut from the budget and reallocate to colleges. I do not think that I agreed with any of them, but I really like the fact that this Parliament is—I hope—moving towards being a place in which we are putting forward substantial and credible ideas.

It was suggested that the £9 million budget for Scotland’s overseas embassy network be cut, which I found surprising, given that that was a creation not of the Scottish Government or the Scottish Executive but of John Major under the previous UK Conservative Government. It is odd that John Major’s position on Scotland’s role in the world is now apparently closer to mine than that of the Scottish Conservative group here in the Scottish Parliament.

I also agreed with Liam Kerr’s contribution on the fragmentation of funding for colleges. Many of us, over many years, have made that point, which has also been made in many independent reviews and reports. There is sometimes a need for discrete funding pots for specific purposes, but we have clearly reached the point at which the skills funding landscape is so fragmented that it is creating huge inefficiencies and substantial amounts of money are being wasted simply on administration.

I also agree that there has been a profound lack of strategic direction for further education in Scotland. However, that is beginning to be addressed. We saw that in the publication of the purpose and principles document last year. It did not go into quite as much detail as I would have wanted, particularly in relation to other strategies, such as the national strategy for economic transformation, but it was a start and colleges welcomed it. We need to acknowledge that that direction is now forthcoming.

Earlier, I mentioned a long-time Green proposal to move the pay and conditions of college principals into the chief executive pay framework element of the public sector pay strategy. I want to build on that a little bit. It was not mentioned today, but the comparison between the pay offer being made to college lecturers this year and the public sector pay strategy was mentioned in the members’ business debate last night. I would caution those who support college lecturers against making that comparison. The fact that college lecturers’ negotiating structure has been independent for so many years has allowed them to secure far better pay and conditions year on year than those that have been in the public sector pay strategy. As much as chief executives should be bound by that, because they are not part of any collective bargaining arrangements, we should respect the independence of the collective bargaining arrangements that are secured by college staff.

On the point about the Strathesk Resolutions report that I mentioned in my opening speech, one area on which both sides would need to come out of their comfort zone is the appointment of either an independent chair for the National Joint Negotiation Committee, which would be my preference, or at least an independent observer. Even doing that as a temporary measure would allow us to make some progress. Many of the issues that we have seen over the years have taken place when both sides thought that they had reached agreement in the room, but, when they left the room, it turned out that they had very different interpretations of what had been agreed.

On Willie Rennie’s point about the £26 million, if he had been here in the debate last night, he would know that I am not distancing myself or my party from that. We were proud to have secured that money for colleges in the budget, but we were then involved in the decision to reallocate it to fulfil the teacher pay deal. I was in those negotiations with the teachers’ unions, and it was made very clear to them that, as much as they had every right to demand what they were demanding, the money would need to come from somewhere within the education budget.

That was the decision that was made. I want that £26 million go back in, but I am proud of the fact that we reached a transformative pay agreement with Scotland’s teachers and ended the strike action in that sector.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

I think that I have only 10 seconds left, unless there is time in hand, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

You have 10 seconds, Mr Greer.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

In that case, I apologise to Mr Lumsden.

The solution is to have far more funding for our colleges, particularly directly from the private sector, as well as more democratic governance, more respect for workers, stricter conditions and better accountability. Collectively, that will deliver the better future for Scotland’s colleges and, critically, for our college students. I think that we can all reach consensus on that.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour 5:18, 8 May 2024

It has been a fascinating discussion. Perhaps unusually, I must apologise on behalf of the Conservative Opposition to Mr Dey for his having to cancel his meeting today. However, experience here teaches that the Opposition has brought the question of colleges and education to the chamber, and, to be fair, we have known about the date of the Conservative Opposition day for some while now. Therefore, a guess that the debate would be on education today would have been a good one to make.

Having that debate is right, because when we listen to—[ Interruption. ] Does the minister want to intervene? No, he does not.

It is right that we have this debate today, because it is clear from listening to the contributions that there is agreement on the fundamental importance of colleges to our society as a whole—particularly to those who are older and outside formal schooling and to those who are challenged by schooling and are trying to find a way back into education—and as a way to help us to address the skills gap. That seems to have had agreement across the chamber today and, indeed, in the very interesting members’ business debate last night.

That brings us to the question of what the challenge is. We have to face the reality that, over 17 years, there has been a lack of priority with regard to colleges, which have suffered year after year in the face of other demands on the budget. As Ross Greer rightly pointed out, taking money out of colleges solved the teacher salary challenge. That was a choice that the Scottish Government and the Greens made. Those choices are important because that is the responsibility of the Government, but with that comes the ability for people to ask, rightly, what the Government’s priorities are. We can see what its priorities are by where it spends the money.

The cuts to education, in relation to the colleges, are about something as simplistic but devastating as removing books from a library. They cut student learning support. That support comes from individuals who work with our young people, our older people and people who find it challenging to stay in college. They say to them, “You can do this, and this is how we can help you.” Careers advisers help to plot out choices for people who choose to go to college, and personal academic tutors sit down with individuals to help them with the smaller and more difficult problems. Student support team members are now threatened by redundancy.

I welcomed many of the speeches, particularly that from Michelle Thomson, who talked about Forth Valley College and rightly pointed out all of the good things about it. However, I remind her that, a year ago, it went into a 30-day consultation process, with the aim of cutting courses and the jobs of 13 members of staff, in order

“to ensure the college remains financially sustainable.”

It is unfair to say that any college is in a positive and strong economic position. They are all challenged. That is summed up by Colleges Scotland’s very own quote. It said:

“The college sector finds itself on a burning platform, with the combination of real term cuts over several years with increased costs related to workforce, inflation and energy ... This has left a sector, which has the potential to provide so much to learners, communities, and the economy, in a situation where colleges are cutting staff, reducing courses and having to remove much needed support services from the students who need them most.”

What is this Government’s priority?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party 5:22, 8 May 2024

I want to use the limited time that is allotted for my closing speech to focus on specific things that we are doing with the colleges to help to address their current financial challenges and to establish a more direct, effective and constructive way of working, because that is an essential part of the way forward.

A number of colleagues will be familiar with the collaborative tripartite alignment group, which we set up to find ways of easing the financial pressures that the sector faces. That has brought forward complex and difficult matters that take time to fully consider—longer than I perhaps anticipated or would want. However, we have established confidence in the process, and that is starting to pay dividends.

Let me offer an example of that. Following advice from the sector on the assets that are likely to become available for disposal, the cabinet secretary announced at the recent Colleges Scotland annual conference that we will embed changes so that colleges can retain a significant proportion of the value of any sale to invest locally. That is an example of the merits of the approach. There is a lot more that we can do to develop that approach and look at greater flexibility. Liam Kerr touched on that.

It is in the interests of all of us to ensure that our colleges thrive, despite the immensely difficult financial climate. There is little doubt that those challenges sharpen the focus on what lies ahead and make the reform of the lifelong education and skills system even more critical.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I have very little time, so I apologise to Mr Kerr for not taking his intervention.

We know, for example, that demand for apprenticeships is greater than the number of new starts that we are able to fund. This year—2024-2025—we have managed to retain funding for modern and foundation apprenticeships at the same level as last year, which means 25,500 modern apprenticeships and up to 2,500 foundation apprenticeships, despite a very challenging budget settlement. As Mr Kerr knows, we are looking to develop the foundation apprenticeship model.

The fact that that level of investment has been confirmed, in light of a worst-case scenario for Scotland’s budget—handed down by the UK Government—is evidence of the Scottish Government’s commitment to apprenticeships. However, there are issues with the current contracting system, and I make no apologies for looking to tackle them.

For example, I do not believe that it is right that managing agents receive up to £8,700 per apprentice and, in some instances, pass on only a fraction of that sum to the colleges that provide the training. In certain circumstances, there is a strong argument for colleges coming together to create their own managing agent structure and accessing more of that public funding. That is being actively explored.

The Scottish Government has set out its intention to strengthen regional skills planning with local partners. That will involve colleges having a critical role in the process, as they better align their offering with the needs of those local economies.

To assist that process, the college sector has created two short-life working groups that will contribute to our thinking. One group is looking into current good practice in skills planning across Scotland’s eight regional economies; the second is looking at models across the other UK nations and internationally. The objective of both groups is to arrive at a set of principles that the Government can look to take forward. The working groups will report next month.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

The minister will be aware that the Public Audit Committee was told in January that four Scottish colleges are in dire straits. Is that still the position? If so, what is the minister doing about it?

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

To give a brief answer, the Scottish Funding Council works closely with all colleges that have challenging financial circumstances. That work is on-going.

I have been clear previously that we plan to simplify the post-school funding body landscape, including by considering the options for a single funding body, which Liam Kerr touched on. As a first step, the intention is to bring together funding for student support into one place and funding for apprenticeship provision into another. There is no question in my mind but that simplification of the funding body landscape is one of the key enablers of reform and improvement across a range of priority areas. I believe that that simplification in the apprenticeship space will be of benefit to the colleges, as will reducing the number of funding pots, which we will be doing.

The real opportunity here is perhaps that provided by the upskilling and reskilling agenda whereby, on a commercial basis, employers can commission our colleges to provide short, sharp courses for their workforce.

I genuinely thank Liam Kerr for securing this debate. As the reform agenda progresses, the Government looks forward to further opportunities to get into the detail. I understand, as we have heard today, that we are not necessarily articulating publicly the enormous amount of work that is being done to progress the agenda. I also think that there is a genuine desire among members to see our colleges flourish, and among many of them, there is at least a realism and a willingness to contribute constructively to making that happen.

I agree with many of the points that Stephen Kerr raised earlier. I find that quite troubling on one level, but he was right in much of what he said. I offer to engage with those members who want to contribute constructively beyond the debate, and to meet Willie Rennie on the issue of the SRUC.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative 5:27, 8 May 2024

I am pleased to be able to close the debate on supporting Scotland’s colleges. Every child should have the same chance to succeed, regardless of where they are from, what school they went to or what their parents did. Education can be the single greatest leveller in our society, and it is a leveller that can spread aspiration across the whole country. It is a tried and tested, and some would say the most effective, route out of poverty. That is a key principle on which, I think, we in the chamber can all agree. We have heard that from all parties this afternoon.

Education, especially the college sector, also has the potential to transform the economy by creating flexible routes into employment and developing a skilled workforce, thereby delivering sustainable economic growth and reducing poverty, here in Scotland. In my Mid Scotland and Fife region we are blessed with several fantastic colleges—Forth Valley College, Fife College, UHI Perth and the SRUC, which Willie Rennie mentioned. I agree with him regarding concerns about the Elmwood campus.

Working in partnership with employers across the region, the college sector is crucial in addressing some of the most daunting challenges that we face as a country—a stubborn productivity gap, an ageing population and low economic growth being just some of the challenges. There is also the challenge of enabling new generations of Scottish entrepreneurs to create the businesses and jobs of tomorrow.

Our primary duty is to create an education and skills landscape that is fit not only for the present but for the needs of the future. I am sorry to say that successive SNP education secretaries, including the new leader John Swinney, have consistently passed down cuts to the sector and have not moved forward on suggested reforms. The Withers reforms that were so eloquently mentioned by Stephen Kerr and Liam Kerr highlight that point. Those decisions are now coming—

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I will, if it is a very short one, because I do not have a lot of time.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

It will give the member a chance to have a drink of water.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I offer Roz McCall the reassurance that we are absolutely committed to taking forward the overwhelming majority of the Withers recommendations.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

I guess that my response to that should be to ask when, but I accept the intervention and appreciate the point.

Previous decisions are, unfortunately, coming home to roost, for the SNP Government. I want to take the time to cite, from my region, one example, which is the plight of UHI Perth, where documents that have been sent out to staff lay out the college’s financial position. It is saying that it must increase income or reduce costs by £4 million by 31 July 2025. The proposals include £3 million in staff-cost savings, which does not include an estimated £1 million for voluntary severance pay and £1 million of savings in non-staff costs.

The savings will include the removal of “unviable” courses, cutting the higher education personal academic tutor role and removing programmes in which school students can attend part-time learning.

In addition, the current library will be turned into

“a more versatile study space”

that will contain only a

“limited book collection”

and will be open for only one evening a week. The library assistant role will be axed and the on-site nursery will close.

The Social Justice and Social Security Committee, of which I am a member, has heard compelling evidence that increasing of parental employment is an integral part of reducing child poverty in Scotland, but there is a triple whammy of obstacles that have to be overcome to realise that goal: transport, upskilling and childcare. When cuts to college funding that reduce the number of courses and close childcare facilities directly hit two of those, that raises the question whether the Scottish Government truly wants to eradicate child poverty. If it does, the forthcoming changes at UHI Perth should ring serious alarm bells.

As I mentioned, we have heard all the platitudes from the SNP about the importance of education and the role that our colleges play. However, ministers simply cannot pretend that they agree with the need to change outcomes then consistently undercut the delivery of those outcomes. The financial strain that colleges such as UHI Perth are under is bad enough, but the SNP Government is failing colleges on many fronts. That point was made very eloquently earlier by my colleague Liam Kerr.

The Scottish Government is actively shunning much-needed reform in the sector and seems to have completely ignored the recommendations of the Education, Children and Young People Committee report on college regionalisation, which was mentioned by Sue Webber and Liam Kerr. That report stated:

The Committee is concerned that colleges are currently making decisions to respond to the challenging financial climate without clear overarching strategic direction from the Scottish Government as to their purpose and what they must prioritise”.

It went on:

“As such, colleges are being asked to take decisions for the future, uncertain as to whether those decisions will be compatible with the Scottish Government’s vision.”

The Government is shunning much-needed reforms, and has not created the environment in which colleges can be flexible or show more innovation.

In conclusion—I have got there, Presiding Officer—I note that the potential and, indeed, the existing outputs of Scotland’s colleges are incredible. They are led by brilliant staff and they have talented and committed students, but they are being let down by the SNP Government. Colleges need help to boost our economy and deliver a workforce for the future. The Scottish Government must listen to the calls from Conservative members and the sector. Otherwise, colleges will only continue to suffer