Comment: Russell’s tantrum distracts from real issue

College chief has resigned following 'unwarranted attack' from Mike Russell
College chief has resigned following 'unwarranted attack' from Mike Russell
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Cuts to colleges will deprive potential students of a better life, just to fund elite universities, writes Allan Massie

Complaining of what he called “an unwarranted personal attack “ by education minister Mike Russell, the chairman of Stow College, Kirk Ramsay, has resigned. In case you have missed the story, here it is. The minister held a meeting with the heads of Scottish colleges. Its purpose was to enable Mr Russell to explain, and defend, his policy with regard to the colleges, a policy which has seen cuts in financing, the closing of some part-time courses, a reduction in the number of students, and staff redundancies.

These so-called “structural reforms” have not been welcomed by the colleges, and even if none of the college heads arranged for the minister to be burned in effigy on the Fifth of November, he is not their pin-up boy. So Mr Ramsay decided to record what was said at the meeting – perhaps because he doesn’t have implicit trust in politicians and the version Mr Russell’s aides might have produced. He then distributed his recording to other interested parties. The minister was offended, perhaps furious, and demanded that Mr Ramsay resign.

He resisted at first, but has now given way, presumably because he thinks that the college’s interests would be harmed if he remained its head. The college’s board of management says it has accepted his resignation “with great sadness”. Labour’s education spokesman, Hugh Henry, accuses Mr Russell of “bullying” and says that many staff in education and further education have told him they are “frightened to speak out about the way they are treated” by him. Mr Russell says that “the Scottish Government believes that the college sector, like any other, needs to be led and governed by people of the highest quality and standards”.

The implication is clear. Mr Ramsay has, in Mr Russell’s opinion, fallen short of these standards. But has he? Admittedly, his recording of the meeting was unauthorised, made surreptitiously on what is called a “spy-pen”. But there were, according to Mr Ramsay, some 80 people present, college leaders and civil servants, and he didn’t see it as a private occasion. In any case, some of them may, one presumes, have taken notes. Suppose, moreover, that Mr Ramsay can do shorthand, and employed this skill to make a word-for-word record of what was said, which he then transcribed and distributed. Would it be reasonable to object to that, and, if not, what is so different about a recording of proceedings?

Lots of people know what was said in the meeting. Others, as I suggest, are likely to have taken notes and passed on to colleagues the substance of what was said. Mr Ramsay can hardly be thought to have disseminated grave secrets of state. He would doubtless have spoken to colleagues about the meeting, even if he hadn’t made his recording. Indeed, by choosing to record proceedings he made sure that the information he gave colleagues was accurate.

So why the fuss? Why Mr Russell’s fury? He hasn’t – so far as I know – claimed that the meeting was held under what are called Chatham House Rules, which enjoin confidentiality. Is it perhaps Mr Russell, not Mr Ramsay, whose behaviour falls short of “the highest quality and standards”? Is he perhaps stirring things up, and claiming the high moral ground, to distract attention from his government’s policy? Yet it is this policy, not Mr Russell’s hurt feelings or parade of indignation, which is the important question. Heavy cuts are being imposed on the colleges. The Scottish Government may blame these on the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s austerity programme. Well, certainly, there is austerity, but it is the Scottish Government itself which is responsible for what is happening to the colleges.

“To govern is to choose”, as the saying goes. Fair enough; there are always choices. The government has decided our universities should not charge student fees, as English universities now do. They have therefore chosen to finance university education from the public purse. Many Scots agree with this decision. But it has consequences. If you spend money in one place, you can’t spend it in another. If you decide not to require university students to contribute to the cost of their education, and so abjure this source of finance, you may have to make savings elsewhere. Mr Russell has decided the colleges must suffer so that our universities can be suitably financed.

Universities are important, but so are the colleges. Their courses mostly provide training rather than education, training that fits young people for non-professional jobs by teaching them marketable skills.

It is generally recognised that though the general level of Scottish schools may be satisfactory, and the best ones very good, there are others that fail their pupils. Sometimes they aren’t to be blamed for this. There are, as there always have been, many boys and girls who are not academic, but who have other aptitudes and are capable of becoming skilled craftspeople and good workers. The colleges are there to give them a chance; and it is wrong of the government to reduce the number of places at colleges and the number of courses they offer. Doing so will condemn many young people to unemployment or trap others in jobs that offer few prospects of a better life.

There is much sympathetic talk about social deprivation and the wretched prospect of families where there is a second or third generation with no experience of work. Cut the money available for the college courses which offer an escape from this dismal fate and more will find themselves in this position. Twenty-five per cent of college students come from deprived areas. The forgotten people in Scotland are those at the bottom of the social pyramid, and cutting the money available to colleges will ensure that more of our young people remain there, excluded, deprived and unfulfilled.

There is an alternative, which is to accept that university students should contribute to the cost of their education, perhaps quite modestly. In the last Scottish election only the Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, was bold enough to come out in favour of student fees. She was promptly shot down, as Alex Salmond preened himself on his commitment to free university education. The consequence is now clear, and the sufferers are those whose opportunity to benefit from the training courses offered by the colleges is being restricted.

It is difficult to see that this is desirable, equally clear that it flies in the face of fairness. The burden of cuts in the education budget is being placed on those most in need of the training that can make for a better life. Is this what the SNP calls a social democratic programme? When – if – Mr Russell recovers his temper, he might choose to answer this question.