By Bill Heaney
Newly-elected Tory MSP Pam Gosal, pictured right, who represents the West Scotland, was quick off the mark at Holyrood today to ask the Government to respond to the Audit Scotland report, which highlighted that the gap between colleges’ funding and expenditure has grown to £54 million.
The SNP Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Jamie Hepburn, told her: “We know that our colleges face significant financial challenges, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and we are working closely with them to mitigate the effects of the crisis.
“Assessing and managing the financial health of colleges is a dynamic process. In its report ‘Scotland’s colleges 2020’, Audit Scotland acknowledged that the college sector reported an underlying operating surplus of more than £3 million in academic year 2019-20.
“In financial year 2020-21, we allocated the college sector and its learners more than £30 million in additional funding, with the Scottish Funding Council allocating an extra £10 million of repurposed funding.
“In the current financial year, there is an overall increase in the college sector budget of £33.7 million, which will support the sustainability of the college sector and help mitigate against the effects of the pandemic.
“In addition, the Scottish Funding Council will shortly conclude its review of coherent provision and sustainability in the tertiary sector.”
However, Ms Gosal, the first Indian Sikh woman to be elected to the Scottish Parliament, replied: “As we recover from the pandemic, it is clear that Scotland’s further education sector will play a critical role in our recovery, as people look to reskill and retrain for a changing job market.
“However, with Scotland’s college sector’s deficit apparently set to rise even further in the coming years, the sector is facing the task with one arm tied behind its back.
“If the Government is serious about equipping Scotland with the skills that it will need to rebuild effectively, the Government must commit to properly funded colleges. Will the minister commit to full funding for colleges?”
Minister Jamie Hepburn told her: “In the coming year, we are providing £33.7 million more to the college sector than we provided last year.
“On Ms Gosal’s remarks about a deficit in the sector, I urge her to look with caution at the figure that she quoted, which includes many reported costs, such as depreciation of assets, that do not have an immediate cash impact on colleges.
“I refer her to the point that I made: for the academic year 2019-20, an adjusted operating position of a surplus—a surplus—of more than £3 million was reported.”
Ms Gosal told him: “The minister talks about £33 million, but Audit Scotland said that there is a £54 million funding gap. There is no single pathway that people, especially young people, choose; different people choose different pathways.
“University is not right for everyone. When I finished school, it was not right for me; the time that I spent at Cardonald College provided me with a platform from which I could start not only my career but my education journey, which has led to my handing in my PhD thesis this week.
“This is not just about my journey. I want everyone out there to have the same opportunities that I had. Will the minister explain how his Government plans to prioritise the college sector and reverse the trend that has resulted in a 35 per cent reduction in college student numbers since his Government came to power?”
The Minister replied: “I congratulate the soon-to-be Dr Gosal on completing her PhD. Let me correct the member. She referred to a reduction in student numbers in Scotland’s colleges. That is not correct.
“Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, we continue to exceed the target of 116,000 full-time-equivalent student places. In 2019-20, we delivered more than 117,000 full-time-equivalent student places.
“I agree with Ms Gosal’s fundamental proposition: there are many different pathways for young people. Ms Gosal will be aware that my ministerial role goes much wider than the tertiary education sector and that I also have responsibility for the developing the young workforce strategy and the young persons guarantee.
“She—and every member—can be assured that my commitment is that there is no wrong path for a young person as they move onward and into employment and that I will approach my role in that vein.”
Picture: Clydebank FE College at Queens Quay from Titan Crane. Picture by Bill Heaney