MSPs pass university access reform legislation

Reform legislation designed to widen access to higher education institutions such as St Andrews University has been passed. Picture: Jane Barlow
Reform legislation designed to widen access to higher education institutions such as St Andrews University has been passed. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CONTROVERSIAl legislation reforming colleges and universities has been passed by Holyrood, despite being branded a “shambolic, botched job” by Labour.

• College and university reforms in Scotland have been passed despite fierce criticism from Labour

• Legislation aimed at increasing access to university to young people from deprived backgrounds

• Other measures include regionalisation of college sector and limits on university tuition fees paid by students from the rest of the UK

The Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the changes, which ministers said would increase access to university for youngsters from deprived communities.

The legislation will also bring about “substantial improvements” in the governance of both the college and university sector, Education Secretary Mike Russell said.

“This Bill doesn’t tinker around the edges or skirt around the issues,” he told MSPs.

“It’s delivering real reform for the benefit of learners in Scotland.”

The measures, in the Post 16 Education (Scotland) Bill, were approved by 65 votes to 51.

Current statistics show 11 per cent of young people from deprived areas go on to study at university.

The Bill will put agreements for widening access on a statutory basis, and also includes measures for the regionalisation of the college sector and limits on the university tuition fees paid by students from the rest of the UK.

“Today is a good day for learners in Scotland,” Mr Russell declared, as he told MSPs the Bill was backed by “staff and students, and by colleges and universities”.

Scope

The Education Secretary added: “It’s a Bill of scope and ambition.

“Of course it was never going to be possible for everyone to agree on everything.

“It tackles head on the problem of under-representation of people from our deprived communities, who for too many generations have lacked the opportunities but not the talent, nor the ambition, to succeed.

“The Bill also makes substantial improvements in the governance of both the colleges and university sectors, delivering appropriate levels of assurance for the substantial investment the state makes of around £1.6 billion a year.

Meanwhile, new outcome agreements will “for the first time make crystal clear” what education institutions are expected to deliver for the public funding they receive.

“These post-16 reforms ensure Scotland truly is a nation where there is opportunity for all,” Mr Russell said.

But Labour’s Neil Findlay hit out, saying: “This is a bad Bill.

“Much of it could have been achieved without legislation.

“It centralises power in the hands of the cabinet secretary, compromises autonomy and accountability, confuses college governance, and has limited ambition on widening access.”

He claimed the Bill had been a “shambolic, botched job from the beginning”.

Mr Findlay, together with other opposition MSPs, had earlier called on the Scottish Government to withdraw the legislation.

“At the time, I called the Bill a dogs breakfast,” he recalled.

“I want to withdraw that charge as I now realise it was an unfair slight on the pet food industry.

“But the Bill should have been withdrawn and brought back in a more coherent and comprehensible state.

“This would have been the right and responsible thing to do.”

‘Fundamentally flawed’

But he said Mr Russell had “blustered on regardless” with the legislation, which he claimed was “fundamentally flawed”.

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the Bill was “both unnecessary and open to all kinds of unintended consequences which could be detrimental”.

“There are some major policy issues in the context of the increasingly competitive international situation for our universities,” she said.

“Success is greatest in the nations where governments are less rather than more involved.

“In Finland in 2010 they actually removed the state from universities because it was stifling autonomy and holding back research and development, innovation and knowledge exchange.”

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur claimed the SNP administration had “rail-roaded this Bill through”.

He added: “In using its majority against the wishes of every other party in this chamber to push through this Bill, the SNP ensured that there would be legislation, but the case for this approach remains unconvincing.

“It does seem to be a comfort blanket for ministers and nothing else.”

Robin Parker, NUS Scotland president, said the vote was a “key moment” for students.

“Much of the Post 16 Education Bill has been down to the campaigning work we’ve seen from students across Scotland calling for legislation on fair access, and for students to be at the centre of our post-16 education system,” he said.

“Crucially, it puts widening access agreements in legislation for the first time, creating a strong, national framework for fair access to happen. This will help level the playing field for talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have too often found themselves locked out of higher education.”