MSPs urge openness over £100m college budget

THE heads of agencies in charge of Scotland’s colleges have said they will look at extending freedom of information laws to controversial arm’s length foundations (Alfs) given control of nearly £100 million of spending in further education.

MSPs will look at extending freedom of information laws to controversial arms length foundations (Alfs) given control of nearly £100 million of spending in further education. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Aileen McKechnie, the Scottish Government’s director of advanced learning, made the pledge after MSPs were told that the prospect of opening up public requests for information on how the taxpayers’ cash is spent by Alfs had never been con­sidered by officials.

Laurence Howells, chief executive of the Scottish Funding Council, which distributes funding from the government to colleges and universities, was challenged by MSPs about whether Alfs should be subject to freedom of information (FoI) requests in the same way as councils, health boards and ministerial departments.

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Mr Howells, speaking at Holy­rood’s public audit committee, said that it was not a “matter I have a view on” when he was pressed whether Alfs such as North East Scotland College should be covered by FoI laws.

He added that it was “not a matter we had considered” as MSPs called for the legislation to be extended to cover Alfs after the trusts that deliver leisure services were added to the list covered by the laws.

Ms McKechnie, who is a senior Scottish Government’s civil servant with responsibility for colleges, said she was “not aware that discussion has taken place” about extending the public right to know in the further education sector.

SNP MSP Stuart McMillan called for FoI laws to be extended to Alfs as the committee quizzed officials about cost-cutting mergers that have seen more 600 teaching staff axed and the number of individual colleges fall from 37 to 20 in recent years.

He said: “I’d argue that a pre­cedent has been set for the extension of Freedom of Information with that of leisure trusts.

“There’s no strong reason for the extension of Freedom of Information not to happen here and I’d like a firm commitment to look at this particular issue.” 
 Mr Howells, responding to MSPs, said: “We need to look at the issue in the round and the principle of openness.

“It’s part of the public domain so let’s look at the issue and provide you with evidence.”

Ms McKechnie added: “It’s an issue that’s concerning the committee so we will take it away and look at it.”

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott called on the officials to state where £50 million in savings set out by the government had been made.

Mr Scott said: “There was a figure the government asserted would be saved, but there’s no details on that. Why is that not in your submission [to MSPs]?

“There’s not a totality of evidence and we expect much greater details about where these savings have been made.”

SNP MSP David Torrance also asked “how many compulsory redundancies have been made by colleges” as Ms McKechnie and Mr Howells faced questions about the £50m savings.

Mr Howells said he was “only aware of a very, very few cases” where college staff had faced compulsory redundancy.

Ms McKechnie said she only knew of “just one compulsory redundancy in the sector”.

She added that the Scottish Government’s college reforms had “improved the life chances of young people” in further education and “delivered greater levels” of services for students with fewer resources.