Brian Monteith: Minister lacks education on what colleges need

WHY is it that this Scottish Government, that has as its raison d’être the belief that decisions affecting Scots are best taken in Scotland, is driving full tilt in so many areas to have as many decisions that will affect communities from Elgin to Dumfries taken by it and it alone in Edinburgh?

WHY is it that this Scottish Government, that has as its raison d’être the belief that decisions affecting Scots are best taken in Scotland, is driving full tilt in so many areas to have as many decisions that will affect communities from Elgin to Dumfries taken by it and it alone in Edinburgh?

The urge to centralise Scotland’s police forces and fire services, with strong behind-the-scenes influence and ultimate control resting with Edinburgh politicians, is set to continue. Tomorrow the Scottish Parliament education committee will begin hearing evidence on the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill – a piece of legislation that will seek to take greater control of further education colleges and universities away from the institutions and put it in the hands of Michael Russell, the education secretary.

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The particularly strange aspect of this power grab is that it has not come about through any great pressure, or any particular dissatisfaction that has caused alarm or consternation and grabbed the dedicated attention of the education community. Students are worried, quite rightly, about the SNP’s unprecedented and unexpected cuts to their bursaries or the lack of courses to study.

College managements are worried about finding economies of scale, about meeting the demand for studying, especially when youth unemployment is rising, while it’s falling in the rest of the UK.

Both are frantic about how to deal with the SNP minister’s planned cuts of 24 per cent – a figure that took Mr Russell three attempts to admit to.

There are no demonstrations in the streets about college governance, and I can’t say I have seen letters, e-mails or tweets to the media railing against the way colleges are run – but the education secretary believes his priority must be to ensure he, through his officials, is able to instruct and direct the way they run.

Not only is this approach counter to the lessons of success in Scotland and around the world – that greater institutional freedom from government delivers better outcomes – it is also at odds with the Michael Russell who came into his post and immediately set about considering how schools might enjoy greater liberty from their local authority straitjacket.

Scotland’s colleges were incorporated in 1992, ending their management and dominance by local authorities. The result has been a success story where more external income and more partnerships with businesses have made them more dynamic and far more responsive to the needs of their local customers – the students.

Greater competition encouraged innovation and investment but, following devolution and changes in funding, more importance was given to making savings through finding economies that mergers could bring. Colleges are of course audited and some have had their weaknesses or mistakes paraded in public, but in comparison to, say, health boards, their record has been good. It is thought that the minister wants to deal with what is called “duplication” in the sector, but what is meant by the term and his supporting evidence has still to be revealed.

Without the minister’s prompting, the colleges themselves have been exploring and delivering the sharing and merging of back-office functions and sometimes whole institutions. This gives more credence to the feeling that the legislation is a heavy-handed approach, especially when controls are already available to Mr Russell on the distribution of public funds.

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The conclusion that the legislation is more about nationalising the colleges rather than leaving them locally responsive is irresistible.

Following the minister’s arguments with the chairman of Stow College (that ultimately resulted in the chairman’s resignation to protect the college from what he saw as possible persecution) and the undercurrent of accusations about Mr Russell taking a bullying attitude to Scotland’s colleges, neither they nor the minister have their troubles to seek. And all at a time when the colleges are facing the deepest spending cuts in funding in living memory.

The scene is therefore set for more public pressure to be placed on Mr Russell, illustrated by the Scottish Conservatives putting their money where their mouth is by announcing they would reinstate those funding cuts – and joining the National Union of Students in its campaign (that’s a line I never thought I’d type).

Concern is already being voiced that greater state involvement in the colleges will endanger their charitable status – worth some 
£54 million to the sector – while new stipulations suggest the number of women on college boards must be at least 40 per cent and there be trade union representatives. That is not about good governance, but has everything to do with political correctness and gaining union support for the changes.

This latest attack on Scotland’s colleges comes at a time when they are already suffering heavily as a result of the SNP taking the decision to shift funding from them to the universities to shore-up their commitment to free tuition fees. The policy represents the redistribution of wealth and opportunity from Scotland’s underclass to the managerial and professional elite. Unskilled, unemployed kids are unable to get courses that would give them the chance of work, while undergraduates who are likely to earn many, many times more in their lifetime are subsidised at great cost to the public purse.

The SNP likes to claim it is left-of-centre and the natural heir to the Labour Party in Scotland. If we are to take the SNP at its word, it practices a form of middle class socialism in the manner of a Gaullist party. Nationalist, obviously, but Stalinist in its centralising approach and wholly dirigiste in its appetite for economic intervention.

More and more the meaning of independence is beginning to look like a straight switch by the replacement of London with Edinburgh, to the cost of local democracy. Independence for the SNP it may be, but hardly for Scotland’s local communities and their institutions.