Scotland politics

MSPs back principle of Post-16 education reforms

Controversial Scottish government plans to change the way colleges and universities are run have been backed in principle by parliament.

Ministers said the reforms would widen access to education, but opposition politicians branded them "a dog's breakfast".

Labour challenged the government to withdraw its Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill.

Education Secretary Michael Russell said the legislation was essential.

He called on other parties to work with the government to take the reforms forward.

The government hopes to make post-16 year education more responsive to the learner and employers.

The bill concentrates on:

  • college regionalisation
  • university governance
  • widening access to higher education
  • a review of fundable further and higher education
  • tuition fees
  • and data sharing.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament, Mr Russell said: "The clear message I am hearing from learners, staff and institutions is that the principles and policy objectives identified are the right ones."

The Scottish Parliament's education committee, which scrutinised the bill, backed its general principles but called for greater clarity.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats said the planned reforms were deeply flawed.

Labour's Neil Findlay, deputy convener of the Scottish Parliament's education committee, who previously described the bill as "a real dog's breakfast", said: "While the aims of the bill we would largely agree with, the bill itself is badly drafted, ill-defined, clumsy and a confused piece of legislation."

Liz Smith, the Tory education spokeswoman, added: "It is a bad bill, not just because of its poor drafting but it is a bad bill because of the complete lack of clarity of the relationships of the new structures, particularly in the college sector."

Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur questioned the need for legislation and said college regionalisation was already well under way, adding: "It is difficult to see why, then, Mr Russell feels the need to give the college sector such a significant statutory kick up the backside."

Robin Parker, president of National Union of Students Scotland, said he supported the principles of the bill, but said an assurance was needed that the focus on widening access continued for many years into the future.

He added that, as it stood, the legislation allowed Scottish universities to charge students from the rest of the UK £36,000 for a degree in Scotland, which was "far more than even what we've seen in England".

MSPs voted for the Post-16 Education Bill at its first stage by 64 votes to 54, with three abstentions.

The legislation still has to get through two further stages of parliamentary scrutiny before becoming law.

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