Scotland politics

Mike Russell calls for quicker pace on college mergers

Education Secretary Mike Russell said the Scottish government should "force the pace" on college mergers to ensure savings are made quickly.

Mr Russell had previously indicated his desire to remove "wasteful duplication" across the college sector by setting up regional groupings of institutions.

He urged Edinburgh's Telford College to resume talks with Stevenson and Jewel & Esk colleges over merger plans.

Telford declined to get involved in plans for a merger earlier this year.

Mr Russell told Holyrood's education committee: "I think it is quite right that we force the pace on this, but it is a decision ultimately for the bodies themselves.

"If you look at the City of Glasgow College, where the expectation was that it would cost substantial sums, it actually estimates that they have made savings this year."

He added: "The pending merger of Stevenson and Jewel & Esk would be enhanced were Telford to join, and I would encourage them to do so, and that will also produce some very positive outcomes.

"But it's not an inevitability. There will be others that see shared services as the way forward."

Raised concerns

In the middle of September, Mr Russell revealed his universities and colleges mergers plan in a statement to parliament.

During the committee hearing, Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur raised concerns that any savings to be made from college mergers may take "quite some time" to feed through.

He said following the meeting that Mr Russell was "utterly dismissive" of the concerns raised by Scottish Colleges about the impact the £70m cut would have the sector.

Mr McArthur said: "Colleges across Scotland will have been appalled by the arrogance of the education secretary's performance this morning.

Image caption The future funding for universities was discussed at the Holyrood committee

"They have been left with the task of delivering the commitments Mr Russell has made.

"The least they should have been able to expect from the minister was a willingness to listen and respond constructively to the case their representative body has been making on their behalf."

The committee also heard from Labour's Jenny Marra, who said some college principals had calculated that the Scottish government's draft budget would result in a 40% cut in their own budget in real terms.

She asked whether Mr Russell would consider diverting more money to the sector to meet the SNP's "manifesto commitment to no compulsory redundancies".

Mr Russell said he would like to see a no compulsory redundancy policy in colleges, but said the SNP manifesto pledge did not extend to colleges as he "cannot tell colleges what to do".

He added: "Why can't I tell them what to do? Because a previous Labour minister, Allan Wilson, took away my power of direction. There is no power of direction I have for the colleges."

Mr Russell was also quizzed about smaller class sizes. He said the government had made "good progress in difficult circumstances" on keeping class sizes down and teacher/pupil ratios at a manageable level.

In terms of the £7,000 minimum income guarantee for students, Mr Russell said he hoped to achieve it "in this spending review period".

He went on to explain that there was an issue with administering the objective, but he added that within a reasonable period of time there would be a start date.

However, Mr Russell admitted that the earliest date possible would be 2013/14.

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