Comments come as Scottish Government publishes flagship education legisation
The Scottish Government’s flagship education legislation could open up the post-16 education sector to “political interference” with ministerial control exerted over the content of courses, a union has warned.
The Post-16 Education Bill published today will put into law a range of reforms to further and higher education with provisions for the regionalisation of colleges, moves to increase participation in university among young people from deprived areas, and the rise in tuition fees for students from the rest-of-the-UK (RUK).
The Bill has been largely welcomed by the university and college sectors, with Scotland’s Colleges chief executive John Henderson saying: “Colleges support the principle of reform and there is much in this Bill to be welcomed.
“Moves towards regionalisation are already well underway, and we hope to see those deliver new efficient and effective ways of working and supporting students.”
However, University and College Union (UCU) Scotland official Mary Senior said: “We have grave concerns about the powers in this bill to potentially open up all aspects of post-16 education provision to ministerial control. This draft bill would allow ministers to review the types of programmes of learning or courses of education provided by post-16 education bodies.
“This opens up the possibility of political interference in the provision and content of courses, undermining both the institutional autonomy of universities and the academic freedom of lecturers. While there should be a role for the Funding Council to ensure subject provision across Scotland the clauses in the draft bill goes much further and are a hostage to fortune.”
The Bill brings together a wide range of reforms brought forward by the Scottish Government following its 2011 white paper ‘Putting Learners at the Centre’, including creating a network of 13 college regions via a programme of mergers.
Scottish ministers will have the power to hire and fire the chairmen of new college regional boards, which were put in place at the start of the current academic year.
Resource budgets for colleges are being cut alongside the reforms, leading to concerns about jobs losses and reductions in provision. Several local union chapters have expressed no confidence in Cabinet Secretary for Education Michael Russell and opposition politicians have called for his resignation over incorrect statements to parliament on college budgets.
The government has also reiterated its claim that college regionalisation will deliver £50m of savings – despite a report from Audit Scotland which said in October that “the Scottish government needs to clarify the costs and benefits of regionalisation, including structural reform, how these benefits contribute to its reform objectives, and how the costs will be funded”.
The Post-16 Bill will also put into law the power of the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), to enforce provisions such as widening access to university with financial sanctions.
Cabinet Secretary Russell said: “The Bill will change the way colleges are governed and structured. Courses will still be delivered locally and what young people now study will give them a greater chance of getting a job because the courses, when and where they are delivered, will be more aligned to what local businesses need.
“Our reforms will reduce the duplication of 41 college administrations and savings of £50m will help the sector meet the funding reductions necessary as a result of constraints imposed by the UK Government. This will all be done while we continue to protect full time places for young people and guarantee a place in education or training for every 16 to 19 year old. Colleges will also become more accountable through an open and transparent appointments process.
“Abolishing tuition fees, which is delivering record numbers of young people at college and university in Scotland, and committing to the best package of student support in the UK is accompanied by measures to ensure universities do all they can to increase access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Responding to publication of the Bill, Universities Scotland convener, Professor Pete Downes, said: “At a level of principle, much of what is in the Bill is aligned with universities’ values. Universities are fully committed to making further progress on widening access to university as reflected in the Bill and have worked hard over the course of 2012 to develop outcome agreements which capture our ambitions in this area.
“We do, however, want to examine the legislation carefully and to work with the Scottish Government and Parliament to refine the proposals as necessary before they become law. In particular, we want to ensure that the legislation gets the nature of the complex relationship between the Scottish Government, the Funding Council and universities right.
“Our touchstone for this is ‘responsible autonomy’: universities should be accountable for the delivery of public benefit, within a framework of institutional autonomy. We need the freedom to develop effective strategies for what we teach, what we research and how we achieve impact, so that we can make the strongest possible contribution to Scotland’s success.”
Elements of the Bill were also welcomed by the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland whose president Robin Parker said: “We have worked incredibly hard to ensure the Post-16 Legislation legislates for widening access, and begins to put the interests of students at the centre of our post-16 system. We hope that this legislation can ensure institutions prioritise fairer access and ensures that the student voice is heard loud and clear in every one of universities and colleges.
“However, we oppose our current system of tuition fees in Scotland for students from the rest of the UK. It goes beyond even the system we see in England, with more expensive degrees, and fewer protections for the poorest students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“We’ll be working hard with parties from across the parliament, and people from across the sector to see this legislation put students’ interests at the heart of Scotland’s post 16 sector.”