Mike Russell accused of having uni closure hit list

Scotland's Labour leader Iain Gray has accused Education Secretary Mike Russell of having a "hit list" of college and university closures.

The comment came during First Minister's Questions at Holyrood.

Mr Gray claimed that top of the list was one of the smallest UK universities, Abertay in Dundee.

Alex Salmond would not be drawn directly on the matter and said Mr Gray had misinterpreted Mr Russell's plans for college and university mergers.

Mr Gray said the SNP leader may not have plans to shut Glasgow or Edinburgh universities, but added: "He's going to close Abertay University. Five hundred staff and 5,000 students. The best university in this country in environmental science and in computer gaming. They are top of Mike Russell's hit list.

"Will the first minister tell us now, yes or no, is he going to close Abertay?"

Mr Salmond responded by quoting back words of support for the SNP budget from representative body Universities Scotland and Glasgow University principal Anton Muscatelli.

The first minister said: "Given that nobody in this country believes that the Labour Party, if they'd been in government, would have funded our universities to anything like this extent, can Iain Gray now find it within himself to agree with Universities Scotland, to quote the words of Anton Muscatelli, that this is a fantastic settlement for universities?"

Abertay has 4,250 students, making it one of the smallest universities in the UK and it is located close to Dundee University, which has more than 17,000 students.

With only a minority of its income coming from sources, such as research grants and overseas students, it is depends on 60% of Scottish government funding.

Labour's Jenny Marra, a North East MSP, returned to the subject during first minister's questions, re-phrasing the question to ask if Mr Russell favoured the merger of Abertay and Dundee universities.

Mr Salmond said: "That is of course not what Iain Gray asked. As I tried to point out a number of times, Iain Gray twice said that the cabinet secretary had proposed the closure of further and higher and university institutions.

"The cabinet secretary never did any such thing. He opened up the possibility of mergers as we've seen in the further and higher education sector, and indeed the university sector.

"A merger between higher institutions has happened many times in Scottish history, it's an entirely different situation from a closure and the scaremongering of Iain Gray."

'Financial sense'

Speculation that Abertay could merge or be shut came after the university's governing body received a letter from the government's Scottish Funding Council asking it to give an "evaluation and analysis" of its role.

The university had been asked to submit its views given the "rapidly-developing financial and policy context". A request was also made for it not to appoint a new principal.

Mr Russell revealed the universities and colleges mergers plan in a statement to parliament last week.

In a pre-legislative white paper, the minister told the parliament: "Ideally I would wish to see emerge regional groupings of colleges, with a spread of specialist, higher-level and access-level provision delivered locally, greater collaboration between universities, with the possibility of mergers where that makes educational and financial sense."

The Scottish Funding Council, which is responsible for handing out £1.5bn each year to colleges and universities, said it was working with the government to help deliver Mr Russell's proposals.

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