Sturgeon’s power vacuum alarms education sector

Nicola Sturgeon introduces members of her ministerial team at Bute House, including Gillian Martin, third from left
Nicola Sturgeon introduces members of her ministerial team at Bute House, including Gillian Martin, third from left
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Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to replace Gillian Martin as a matter of “urgency” as education experts warned that her sacking had left a vacuum at the heart of government.

Martin’s unexpected departure as further and higher education minister led to warnings from academics, trade unions and student leaders that leadership was required at a crucial time for the education sector.

Having proposed that Martin should be made a new minister in last week’s reshuffle, Sturgeon was forced to withdraw her nomination when it emerged she had made a series of offensive blog posts.

Her withdrawal has left the post vacant as teenagers are waiting for Higher results and the Scottish Government is supposed to be concentrating on widening access to university for poorer entrants.

Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University, one of Scotland’s foremost education experts who has advised the Scottish Parliament, said the position that Martin was to have held was a “very important post”.

He said the sector was undergoing major changes including moves to widen access, close the attainment gap between rich and poor and a debate about funding for colleges.

“I think it would certainly help [if Gillian Martin was replaced soon],” Paterson told Scotland on Sunday.

“When people talk about the attainment gap – the social class related attainment gap – the thing that is probably prominent in most people’s minds is widening access to university, especially to the older universities.

“Some of the initiatives the government has taken are attempting to address that and some of the criticism of the government has said it is not enough. It is absolutely at the heart of the debate and it continues.

“One of the most intense periods of debate about this is the summer when the Highers results come out, 
and then when new students start arriving at university and the new cycle of university applications starts in the autumn. It is a very good opportunity for a prominent politician to stimulate debate and it would be a pity if there was to be a vacuum there.”

Liam McCabe, president of the National Union of Students, Scotland, said a new minister had to be appointed as soon as possible.

“It is vital that the government prioritises appointing a new minister as a matter of urgency,” said McCabe. “There are a number of opportunities that require immediate ministerial attention. Universities are falling short of their widening access targets, there’s a growing mental health crisis on our campuses, and we need to see steps taken towards achieving the government’s newly announced ambition to give every student a support package tied to the real living wage.”

Martin’s promotion was reversed on the last day of the Holyrood term after details of a blog mocking trans people and discussing the restaurant tipping habits of “blacks” and “Jews” were publicised.

Sturgeon took the decision not to put her nomination before parliament when it became clear it would not secure widespread parliamentary support.

With Holyrood now in recess for two months, Martin’s successor cannot be formally approved unless parliament is recalled. In the meantime, the Scottish Government has said a “minister designate” could be appointed. However concerns have been expressed that such an arrangement would see the new appointee lack legal status.

Sturgeon’s spokesman said the position would be filled “in due course”. He added: “As Education Secretary, the Deputy First Minister [John Swinney] will be in charge of all of these things in the meantime.”