Scotland politics

Education Secretary Mike Russell defends job after college funding row

Scotland's education secretary has insisted he is the right man to take the college sector forward, despite opposition calls for him to resign.

Mike Russell said he may not be a "model of perfection", but insisted he was committed to doing his best for young people.

Mr Russell has come under fire over giving inaccurate funding figures to parliament and claims of intimidation.

Labour, the Tories and Lib Dems have called on him to step down.

The comments came during a government-led debate on colleges at the Scottish Parliament, called for by the Liberal Democrats.

This week, Mr Russell made a "full and unreserved" apology to MSPs after admitting he told MSPs in June that college funding would not be cut in 2012-13, when it actually fell by £9.3m.

Opposition parties have also accused Mr Russell of being part of a "culture of secrecy, bullying and intimidation" in his relationship with the college sector, in the wake of the resignation of Kirk Ramsay as chairman of Glasgow's Stow College.

Mr Ramsay stepped down blaming an "unwarranted personal attack" by Mr Russell after recording a private discussion during a meeting with the education secretary and other college chiefs.

Last week, First Minister Alex Salmond apologised for telling MSPs that resource funding for colleges was £545m in 2011-12 and £546m in 2012-13.

He later explained the figure of £545m for last year did not take into account changes to the budget, and should instead have been £555.7m.

Mr Russell began the debate by again apologising for stating inaccurate funding figures, which he had described as an "honest mistake".

When asked by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie whether he thought he was the right man to take the college sector forward, the education secretary replied: "I do."

Mr Russell told parliament: "Presiding officer, I don't claim, and you know I don't claim, to be a shrinking violet or a model of perfection.

"I'm committed to getting the best for the students, young people, learners, staff and others in all the sectors for which I have responsibility.

"I am passionate about education and about working with others who share the same passion.

"Education changes lives, it transforms prospects, it opens up opportunity, it creates new worlds."

Mr Russell said challenging changes were needed to help the college sector achieve more, telling MSPs that his priorities also included working with employers and college staff themselves.

Lib Dem Liam McArthur said Mr Russell should change his attitude or leave his job.

Confidence 'lost'

"There's no getting away from the fact that recent events have called into question the competence of the SNP government and the judgment and approach of the education secretary himself," said Mr McArthur.

"Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than Mr Russell's ludicrously heavy-handed treatment of the former chair of Stow College."

Labour's Neil Findlay said the colleges issue was becoming a "disaster", clouded by fabricated figures and spin, adding: "Staff and students in Scotland's colleges have lost confidence in the cabinet secretary, but, more importantly, in his policy.

"I think it's time for him to go."

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith said competence had "disappeared from the SNP government at its highest level".

She told MSPs: "Our ability to scrutinise the true situation which exists for colleges and indeed the ability of the witnesses who attended the (Scottish Parliament) education committee has been seriously undermined by the lack of accurate data.

"The problem for Mr Russell is that he has now lost the confidence of the sector, the public at large and politicians across this chamber."

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