Eddie Barnes: Mike Russell has much to learn

Minister for Education Mike Russell. Picture: Jane Barlow
Minister for Education Mike Russell. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ACCUSED of bullying and misleading parliament over his plans for colleges, education secretary Mike Russell has much to learn

THE first call was not long in coming. Alex Salmond and Mike Russell had just shared a lift up to their fourth-floor office at the Scottish Parliament, ­having laughingly brushed off a TV reporter over claims they had misled MSPs. “Very silly,” declared a nonchalant education secretary. A few minutes later, however, the smiles were wearing off.

Journalists downstairs were being passed a copy of an official note which quite clearly showed that Salmond and Russell had got it completely wrong. And they were beginning to hit the phones to Russell’s officials. The increase in college funding, claimed by Salmond in parliament a few months earlier, was actually a cut. And so the SNP’s afternoon of ­torment began.

“I’m aware that there are other figures being banded about,” said a Scottish ­Government spokesman an hour later – referring to figures produced by none other than the Scottish Government. ­Russell and Salmond realised they were bang to rights, and at 5pm – Holyrood’s voting hour – they were back downstairs to say sorry. The four-hour turnaround from braggish confidence to sheepish ­embarrassment has given opponents enough ammunition to last the rest of the parliament.

“Next week,” says one opposition figure, “as soon as Salmond mentions a number, we’ll all just shout, ‘See you at Five!’ ”

It ended an abysmal week for Russell, forced to choose between being cast as a fool or a knave, having just spent the few days before fighting off claims he was a bully. That allegation came after the chairman of Stow College in Glasgow, Kirk Ramsay, had resigned on Tuesday evening following a bizarre chain of events which had seen Russell taking offence at his having recorded a meeting held by the minister with a specially adapted “spy pen”.

The two separate debacles had little in common – except that they both revolved around the same increasingly thorny part of Russell’s portfolio: reforms he is pushing through to the college sector. Like ministers from across the UK before him, the task of reforming a sector, at a time of no money, is proving to be an arduous task. Last week, it appeared that Russell was lacking the political skills to carry it off. Alex Salmond is sticking by him – for now. But does the SNP’s most controversial minister have what it takes to keep his head above water for the week ahead?

Education secretary since 2009, ­Russell had already managed to ride over some tricky terrain in his four years in the post, not least over ongoing moves to overhaul the entire schools curriculum. But the college reforms, over which his career is now bumping, are proving perhaps the most difficult task of all. The issue has rather crept up on ministers in Edinburgh; Scotland’s further education colleges have been a Cinderella subject over the past decade, with government ministers focusing their energies almost exclusively on universities, and the key pledge to fund free university tuition.

Two things have now come together at once. Firstly, there are long-standing plans to reform a structure set up by the last Conservative government in the 1990s, which currently sees a pre-reform total of 43 colleges existing side by side. Mergers and regionalisation are being ­enacted. And secondly, there is the ­necessity to save cash – exacerbated by the SNP’s costly pledge to ensure that graduates can go to university for nothing.

As one higher education figure puts it: “The choice they made was that they didn’t want students to pay fees. They had to find money to pay for that. They were writing off a big stream of income. The [education] department officials offered them the choice of further education.” Or, as Ian Graham, former principal of Glasgow’s John Wheatley College, put it last week: “These cuts seem to have been made to protect provision, some of which is of dubious value, in higher education institutions and to underwrite provision there which is free to students resident in Scotland.”

The result, say many, is a guddle. There are positives in the attempt to restructure, and to refocus the FE colleges on a series of “outcomes” rather than “inputs”. But the trouble is that, with Russell imposing eye-watering real terms cutbacks of 24 per cent over three years, at the same time as enforcing the restructuring, reform simply ends up looking like a sly way of dressing up savings.

Paul Buchanan, the former chairman of the board of management at Reid Kerr College in Glasgow, declares: “People are confusing reorganisation with job cuts and cuts to funding. If you are in a college, they are not going to see this as a way of making them more effective and delivering the right things to the right people.

“Unfortunately, what has happened is that there is a lot of uncertainty and ­people are having to concentrate on ­having to solve internal issues to do with the reorganisation rather than having to engage in a wider discussion about ­further education’s role in the economy.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur adds that the pace of change set by Russell could ruin any good reforms, as principals end up spending more time dealing with ­redundancy issues than embedding a new culture. In a recent report, Audit Scotland said the changes had the potential to bring a “strategic and co-ordinated approach” to the sector. But it also called on Russell to spell out how the mergers would be paid for and show exactly how the course he has set was actually going to work.

Russell now stands accused of charging ahead, “arrogantly” brushing aside genuinely held concerns by principals, all in a rush to push the reorganisation through to save some cash. He has not ordered mergers or redundancies – he does not have the power. Instead, his critics and unions aver, his department has used a combination of soft and hard power to force colleges to do so themselves. As ­Graham puts it: “As a former senior ­manager in a college, I can confirm that Mr Russell has consistently claimed that colleges support his ‘reforms’… however fear of more draconian measures underpins the apparent consensus.”

Unions complain he has used a blunt “carrot and stick” approach; guaranteeing more cash to those which do decide to merge, and threatening less if they don’t. Graham Hay, chairman of Angus College, ­Arbroath, which is being merged with Dundee College, adds that Russell acts in a “telling not listening style”.

He goes on: “I wouldn’t use the word bullying, but very, very forceful. [There was] no real engagement with the ­sector, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and was forcing the sector down that route. He certainly didn’t appreciate contrary opinions. For a government that keeps talking about independence, independent views are not warmly welcomed. They did not like the independence of the college boards.”

He adds: “I feel particularly strongly about Angus College, because we have just had such a great team there and great community spirit. But none of that counted for anything with Mr Russell, he just wanted to... he had a particular agenda and that agenda would dominate.”

Bill Barr, who retired as chairman of Dundee College in March after a career in higher and further education, adds: “He is condescending. He most certainly is condescending. He tends to talk down to people. It is just an unfortunate attitude that he adopts. I didn’t have any occasion to think that he was a bully, but I found him very aggressive. Because every time I asked a question, he always answered it in a very straightforward way, but you knew you were being dismissed. He is just a difficult guy to deal with.”

It boiled over last week after Russell learnt that Stow College’s Ramsay had taped a meeting without his knowledge. Russell summoned him to Edinburgh. And, as Ramsay put it last week: “He immediately launched into an angry attack, in which he expressed his outrage… He then said quite plainly that ‘if I had the power to remove the chair of the board of a college, I would remove you immediately. You must consider your position, I expect you to resign’.”

Russell’s aides take issue with other anonymous claims, expressed last week, that other principals and chairs of colleges are too frightened to speak out against Russell for fear of similarly losing their job. “If that’s the case, how come we’ve had people openly disagreeing with Mike in the education committee?” says one. The Ramsay affair, they insist, was a ­one-off. “And how many people came out in support of Kirk Ramsay on this one?” the official asks.

The education secretary is at least managing to get stuff done, say his backers. In the case of college mergers and re-organisation, it is a reform well overdue and one which isn’t simply about saving money. Done properly, as Audit Scotland acknowledged, the changes could ensure FE colleges are better focused on providing the kind of courses that will train up youngsters for jobs, and keep them off the dole queue. At a time when skills are needed even more as Scotland seeks to work its way out of recession, that task is crucial: a David Hume Institute paper estimated recently that FE graduates last year will contribute £1.2 billion to Scotland’s economy by the time the decade is out. Barr adds: “He is hell determined that 43 colleges are coming down to 11 ­regions. That’s the agenda. That’s what will happen and he is determined to make it happen.”

But can he do that when he has wound up so many people the wrong way? “He is fearfully arrogant and pompous,” declares one former civil servant. “I’m not sure he’s quite as clever as he thinks he is. He’s the kind of guy that quotes somebody and then you go and look it up and it turns out the quote came from someone else entirely.”

That observation figures with last week’s debacle over further education funding – it wasn’t clever at all. In June, he told a ­Labour MP that there were no cuts to FE funding this year. He then nodded vigorously alongside Salmond on Thursday as the First Minister claimed wrongly that he was increasing funding for FE colleges this year.

And yet only a few weeks earlier, he had signed a document issued to parliament’s public audit committee in which, in his own hand, he had declared that funding would, indeed, slightly reduce. SNP figures were desperately citing “cock-up” in the wake of his inevitable exposure at the end of last week, and pointing the finger of blame at civil servants in Russell’s ­department. It is, say opponents, hard to believe. McArthur, of the Lib Dems and a former special adviser, says: “What happened was that Mike had been creating a narrative that funding was being protected. And so they found a way of twisting the figures to try to make that stand up.”

Russell ended last week having to write to presiding officer Tricia Marwick to ­express his “regret” for having misled parliament for the past four months on the funding cuts. It was a deeply inglorious episode for a man who now cannot risk any more blows to his credibility these coming months. Yet precedent would suggest the risk-taking will continue. Some of Russell’s friends say he is the smartest man they have ever worked with, telling stories of an extraordinary ability to ­digest information and facts in a fraction of the time of others. Is it the case that he, therefore, thinks that rules which apply to others, don’t to him?

Alex Salmond is standing by his long-standing ally and rival this weekend – “Mike knows where far too many bodies are buried,” declares one SNP figure. Surely the First Minister will be hoping that Russell continues to eat some humble pie for a while yet?

Twitter: @EddieBarnes23