EDUCATION secretary Michael Russell has shrugged off renewed calls for his resignation, after Scotland’s three main opposition parties demanded he quit over college funding.
During a heated debate at Holyrood yesterday, the minister faced repeated calls from Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats to step down, after admitting he got figures on further education budgets wrong.
But in a show of defiance, he accused fellow MSPs of being “unpleasant”, before echoing former Labour prime minister Harold Wilson by adding: “People will be asking what’s going on. Let me tell you – I’m going on.”
Mr Russell admitted he was not a “model of perfection” but said he remained committed to driving through reforms in further education.
He also announced plans for a new forum of college chairs, which will meet to discuss the Scottish Government’s plans to regionalise college governance.
Earlier this week, the minister offered a “full and unreserved” apology to MSPs for mistakenly providing the wrong information on college funding.
He said he had “unintentionally misled” parliament in June by saying there was no cut in funding in 2012-13, when it actually fell by £9.3 million.
After listening to a series of calls for him to resign yesterday, Mr Russell said: “[This debate] has been unpleasant, not just for me, but for the parliament, the [college] sector and the country.”
Paraphrasing a famous quote once used by Mr Wilson, he said: “People will be asking what’s going on. Let me tell you what’s going on – I’m going on, this government is going on, and the process of reform is going on.”
He had come under concerted attack from opposition MSPs over his errors on college funding, with Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, describing him as a “dead man walking”, adding that college branches of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union had begun passing votes of no confidence in him.
Flanked by First Minister Alex Salmond, who had to apologise for misleading MSPs last week over the incorrect figures, Mr Russell was accused of having received the “dreaded vote of confidence” from the SNP leader.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay, a member of the education committee, said: “Like in football, the chairman has turned up to give the dreaded vote of confidence to the manager. Surely it’s only a matter of time before this one’s on gardening leave.”
On Tuesday, Mr Russell offered his “full and unreserved” apology for using the wrong budget figure.
Last week, Mr Salmond also apologised. He said resource funding for colleges was £545m in 2011-12 and £546m in 2012-13. But he said the figure for last year did not take into account changes to the budget. It should have been £555.7m, meaning college spending has fallen more than £9m this year.
Despite the cuts, colleges are undergoing a transformation that will see their number reduced through a series of mergers and rearranged around 13 regional boards.
Addressing the chamber at the start of yesterday’s debate, Mr Russell said: “I don’t claim, and you know I don’t claim, to be a shrinking violet or a model of perfection. But I am committed to getting the best for the students, young people, learners, staff and others in all the sectors for which I have responsibility. I know many others are, too.”
He said he had accepted a recommendation from Professor Russel Griggs, who chaired a review of college governance, to establish a “strategic forum”, allowing college chairs and regional college leaders to meet and raise concerns about the government’s reforms.
In a motion that was passed, Mr Russell called on MSPs to recognise colleges’ “substantial commitment to regionalisation” and the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintaining the “volume of teaching” and “full-time equivalent student numbers”.
An amendment from Lib Dem education spokesman Liam McArthur called for regionalisation to be “driven by educational need and at an appropriate pace”. He said instead of making college funding “better and clearer”, Mr Russell had made it “worse and more opaque”.
“What is most striking about this omnishambles is the extent to which it has been largely self-inflicted – through an unwillingness to properly listen and an over-fondness to assert and lambast,” he said.
He added: “There’s no getting away from the fact that recent events have called into question the competence of the SNP government and the judgment and approach of the education secretary himself. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than Mr Russell’s ludicrously heavy-handed treatment of the former chair of Stow College.”
Mr Russell was accused of “bullying” last week when former Stow College chair Kirk Ramsey quit after recording a meeting described as “private” by the education secretary.
Speaking during yesterday’s debate, Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “In this chamber previously, I have complimented the Scottish Government on several of its policies in the early years – policies which, I believe, can make a crucial difference at the most important stage in the educational journey.
“Completely the opposite is true when it comes to their policies towards the tertiary education sector, where the focus is all wrong. This party cannot support a policy which is ripping the heart out of the institutions which have done so much in recent years to make further education more accessible, more flexible and aspiring to higher standards.
“That is why the Scottish Conservatives are fully supportive of the motion submitted by Liam McArthur, why we are calling for a major rethink by the Scottish Government about its priorities within the education budget and demanding that the Cabinet Secretary resigns.”