Scotland's Colleges June Conference: College Futures

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon The Lord Wallace of Tankerness, QC, Advocate General for Scotland, addresses the Scotland's Colleges June 2010 Conference.

I am delighted to have been asked to address your conference today. Seeing familiar faces here brings back memories of my time as Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning.

Then I was in a groundbreaking Coalition at Holyrood. This morning I speak to you as Advocate General for Scotland in a new Coalition Government at Westminster.

Education and the Scotland Office go back a very long way.

With the advent of the Scottish Office 125 years ago in 1885, the Scotch Education Department, as it was then dubbed, came under the remit of the new Secretary for Scotland.

But prior to assuming the role, the man who ironically was to become the first Scottish Secretary expressed his reservations. The 6th Duke of Richmond feared the transfer of the SED to the new ministry on the grounds that it would end up in the hands of a man who knew nothing of his subject.

However, in September 1885, Richmond, the SED and the Lord Advocate moved in together to Dover House, which was to become Scotland’s home in Whitehall. With a grand total of seven staff spread over three floors. But when more staff were first mooted the Treasury took ‘a very hostile view of the thing’.

Some things never change.

Richmond’s six month stint in Dover House did not mark a revolution in Scottish education. But the landscape has been transformed in the ensuing 125 years.

Scotland now has two governments. And while responsibility for education passed to the Scottish Government in 1999, there are, nevertheless, significant issues for Scotland’s colleges and students arising from the new Coalition’s Programme for Government.

These are the issues I want to discuss this morning in the context of stressing the enduring importance of our relationship. For even after devolution there is still a UK Government dimension to the relationship.

As I said, Scotland has two governments. It has been a source of real disappointment to me that the relationship between the two governments deteriorated so much in recent years. Too much time and effort was spent on trying to wrong foot each other when it could have been spent on combining efforts.

More generally, my colleagues on the Calman Commission concluded that there was much more to be done on strengthening links not just between Governments, but also between Parliaments. In short, we were advocating a ‘respect agenda’ before it became fashionable to call it that.

I see so many parallels to day with what I experienced in coalition in 1999, from being on the receiving end barbs from opposition politicians to an endless media speculation about alleged fault lines in the coalition and whether its longevity would be measured in weeks or months. In the event you will recall it lasted 8 years.

But often the public’s perception can be so different. They really don’t understand why politicians don’t work together more. The reaction I have had to the new Westminster Coalition has been remarkably positive. People think parties should work together for the country. It is hard to disagree with their assessment.

Scotland led the way both in terms of devolved government and coalition government.

Who, 10 years ago, would have predicted a United Kingdom where in Northern Ireland the DUP is in coalition with Sinn Fein; in Wales Labour is in coalition with Plaid Cymru; in Scotland there is a minority SNP Government and at Westminster there is a coalition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives?

The UK Coalition Government attaches great importance to its work in Scotland. The Scotland Office team is now a strong cross-party team with a good deal of different experience. Michael Moore, David Mundell and I will work together for Scotland’s interests in the UK Government.

This includes having a more respectful relationship with the Scottish Government.

Indeed, less than 72 hours after the Coalition was formed David Cameron and Danny Alexander were in Scotland. I can assure you that more dialogue will follow.

The Prime Minister has offered to come again - to visit Holyrood annually and answer questions.

And just last week Michael Moore became the first Secretary of State to make a formal appearance in the Scottish Parliament. It only took 11 years!

And next Tuesday, Danny Alexander in his capacity as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will explain the Budget to Holyrood’s Finance Committee.

These are important first steps in re-setting the relationship between Scotland’s two governments.

We have made clear our priorities in both the Coalition Agreement and the Queen’s Speech that above all else this Government’s focus will be on reducing the record £155 billion deficit.

This is the most urgent issue facing Scotland and Britain.

The figures are frankly shocking.

We have a British state which has been borrowing one pound for every four it spends.

The £155 billion annual UK deficit translates to £2,500 for every single Scot.

If we had left spending plans unchanged, by 2015 the UK would be paying nearly £70 billion per annum in debt interest alone. That’s well over twice the Scottish Government’s current annual budget.

Such a high level of borrowing undermines fairness and threatens growth and economic stability. On Tuesday the Chancellor set out a number of difficult choices that will get our finances under control.

As the Scottish Secretary told Holyrood last week we all need to face up to the ‘brutal reality’ of some serious cuts in spending across the UK in the years ahead.

We have embarked upon a new economic path to stop spending beyond our means. Doing nothing in the face of a deficit on this scale is simply not an option. It’s not that we want to take tough, sometimes unpopular decisions; it’s that we had to take them.

Public spending will fall in Scotland. The Spending Review, reporting on 20 October, will announce the actual figures for the UK Government Departments who spend in Scotland, as well as the Scottish Parliament’s budget.

At Holyrood this will present new challenges for the Parliament and MSPs. Since 1999, budgets have always risen. That won’t be the case next year. In 1999-2000 the Scottish Government’s block grant was £14 billion. By today, it would have been £19 billion if it had grown in line with inflation. In fact, it is now £29 billion - a rise of £15 billion - three times rate of inflation.

I appreciate that this future spending reduction will change the parameters for partners like yourselves. Realism will be vital. I have little doubt but that the Scottish Government will do their best but they will need your help and understanding during the tough times that lie ahead.

And in these difficult financial times, it will be important not to lose sight of the fact that higher and further education must surely be key components of a sustainable recovery. Because Scotland’s future must be as a knowledge economy, Scotland’s colleges have a key role in developing a skilled Scotland capable of emerging out of recession and towards strong and sustainable economic growth.

I know from my previous engagement with Scotland’s colleges just how very agile you are as a sector in reaching those people and businesses others can’t reach and I am sure you are already thinking about how best to deploy limited resources to best effect.

As well as ensuring people are skilled in vital industries and sectors such as life sciences, energy and engineering, colleges play a critical role in helping individuals with significant challenges develop the right skills and aptitudes to move from unemployment to work. You clearly have a keen interest in how the government’s welfare reform programme develops, and I expect will discuss with Michael Moore when you meet him later in the summer.

We know that back to work support is currently too complicated and involves too many different programmes.

We are starting a radical programme of welfare reform to break the culture of welfare dependency. Benefits must not disincentivise work. We are introducing a Work Programme intended to make things simpler. Offering a coherent package of support to individuals who are unemployed, tailored to their circumstances.

And we understand that for many students flexibility is paramount and part-time study is their only option. So I hope that we can work across government to make the new measures work for them, and to ensure that particular account is taken of the very different structures in Scotland, where a much greater proportion of higher education is delivered through our colleges.

I also anticipate that colleges - along with other key organisations active in the community and supporting people and businesses - will play a vital role in the government’s vision of the Big Society. David Mundell will represent Scotland’s interests on a Ministerial Group being set up next week to advance the Big Society agenda. He will work closely with you and others on implementing change to support key organisations improve people’s lives.

I would just like to touch on the UK Government’s radical reforms for the political system.

Of course, a top priority for the Scotland Office in this first session at Westminster will be the implementation of the recommendations of the Calman Commission’s report on Scottish Devolution.

Over a year ago Sir Kenneth Calman delivered his comprehensive report, based on consultation across Scotland, and including valuable submissions from Scotland’s Colleges. Not only was it a process that the three main UK parties took part in and supported, but the Commission produced a unanimous report which was supported by all three parties too.

The Commission found that the 1998 Act had established a system of devolved government which met the aspirations of the people of Scotland and is working well in practice. But we saw a need for further development and so we intend to deliver better devolution in a new Scotland Bill. And alongside more devolved powers there will be greater financial accountability.

We want to work with others as we move forward. We will seek and exchange views on the best way of implementing the recommendations and we want to maintain a constructive dialogue with the Scottish Government and Parliament throughout the process.

This is just part of a wider reform agenda. We are committed to opening up politics, transforming the political landscape and helping rebuild faith in the political process. Parliament must be strengthened and cleaned up. I want to see a Britain where our political system is looked at with admiration not anger.

We are committed to reforming the House of Lords, establishing fixed term Westminster parliaments, giving the public the right to recall MPs and staging a referendum on the Alternative Vote. All these measures matter as much to Scotland as anywhere else in the United Kingdom and you will hear a lot more about them in the year ahead.

I know that Scotland’s Colleges and the Scotland Office have worked well together over the last few years and that this relationship has influenced government thinking on areas such as student visas.

It is clear from representations which you have already made that bogus colleges remain a major concern. Today’s conference is entitled ‘College Futures’ - but for bogus colleges there must be no future. Sham colleges have no place in Scotland’s world class education sector.

We know about the scams used to hoodwink potential students. And I can assure you that we too are concerned about the damage they do to our reputable providers of further and higher education.

Naturally we are all aware of the wide range of benefits that legitimate foreign students bring to the Scottish education sector. But we are not going to tolerate abuse of the system.

I note the foundations laid by the previous administration in its closing months including their emphasis on new rules to govern international students working towards lower level qualifications.

The Coalition Programme made clear our commitment to ‘introduce new measures to minimise abuse of the immigration system, for example by student routes’.

Tightening the restrictions on the student visa route to Scotland will help to drive out the bogus colleges and make it tougher for the phoney students who only want to work here.

The Tier 4 sponsor licensing system has gone some way to addressing the problem. Licensing is a two-stage process, which first involves an independent check on the quality of education provision offered by way of inspection, audit or accreditation. Secondly there are checks by the UK Border Agency to ensure that the provider is likely to be able to comply with its duties relating to the management of international students.

The UK Border Agency undertakes regular checks will take swift action to suspend or revoke the licences of those that are not complying with their duties.

Through this action we will help to maintain the deserved international reputation of Scotland’s universities and colleges, who are competing for able students in an ever more competitive global market for education providers.

Within the last year two important pieces of work have been prepared in the area of private education colleges and student visas.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published a report on bogus colleges in July 2009. In it they highlighted their concerns at the number of illegal immigrants who may have already settled in the UK on fraudulent student visas. Numbers, which they reckoned, could be in the tens of thousands.

And as you are probably aware, the Home Affairs Committee was also critical of the previous Government for ignoring the various warnings from the education sector about bogus colleges.

Even if there was an element of closing the stable door earlier this year, that report contributed towards the adoption of the more rigorous criteria of ‘Highly Trusted Sponsors’ of overseas students to be undertaken by course providers.

The second publication is the Operation Pathway report written by my fellow Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Carlile, and published in October 2009. The report touched on the issue of links between bogus colleges and terrorist activity in the UK following the Operation Pathway arrests in the North of England in April 2009. In raising this, I would like to stress that although Operation Pathway triggered the report, all of those arrested (12 men) were released from detention within a fortnight and none were charged with terrorism offences.

The report highlighted abuses which we are all too familiar with. It highlighted, and I quote, ‘the known problem of bogus colleges, non-existent or merely vestigial courses and poor attendance records.’

And it called for a higher level of vigilance from the authorities than hitherto of colleges and the high number of applications from non-UK nationals applying for permission to attend them. I am pleased that Scotland’s Colleges strongly support Lord Carlile’s recommendations.

As I have outlined, in the interim the previous Government did start to tackle these issues. But we must do more.

Bogus college tarnish our hard earned reputation for educational excellence and potentially offer an illegal back door entry to Scotland.

We know from experience that without appropriate action this issue will not simply go away but will only get steadily worse. That’s why it must be tackled head on.

And I know that we can count on your support as we implement measures to eradicate this stain on the sector.

I believe that we can go forward together. Sharing best practices, experiences and ideas. The Scotland Office and Scotland’s Colleges have a long established relationship that will endure. Scotland Office ministers’ doors are open. We recognise that there are issues at a UK level which are of importance to you. We look forward to building a partnership; to feed in your views and to advance the cause of Scotland’s Colleges in the Coalition Government.