Scotland politics

MSPs back post-16 education reforms

Controversial legislation aimed at widening access to higher education has been passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Opposition parties voted against the Post 16 Education bill after they accused the government of trying to interfere in how universities are run.

Labour said calling the bill a dog's breakfast was unfair to the pet food industry.

But ministers said the new law would help students from poorer backgrounds get a degree.

The proposals, which were back by 65 votes to 51, are wide-ranging and include reforms to the way colleges and universities are run.

The bill will place arrangements to try to bring in more students from a wider range of backgrounds onto a statutory footing.

Education Secretary Michael Russell said: "Our universities and colleges have a strong track record and Scottish education has a proud history and reputation. The legislation passed by the parliament today builds on these strengths and sets a framework to ensure the sector continues to improve.

"For students the bill will deliver fairer access to university, with widening access agreements and new powers to determine priority groups. It also backs our college regionalisation programme which will ensure colleges equip students with the skills and knowledge they need for local jobs.

"This bill puts in place measures to improve governance, it will ensure twelve regional chairs for the college sector are appointed in a fair and transparent way and ensure equality is considered in governor appointments. It will help to deliver a system of post-16 education that is fit for the future and delivers for students and our economic future."

Some universities were concerned the details of how to do this could have interfered with their historic autonomy - but proposed amendments appear to have eased their worries.

'Particularly welcome'

The University and College Union (UCU) said it had worked with the government and MSPs to ensure the bill was revised to increase involvement of staff of universities' governing bodies and to remove the government's power to intervene on what courses universities should run.

Welcoming the passage of the bill, UCU Scotland President Dave Anderson said: "It is vitally important that our universities remain free from government interference and will be properly scrutinised. We are pleased that the revised bill now ensures both these things will happen.

"The Cabinet Secretary's endorsement of our call for staff and student involvement in university governance is particularly welcome, and we look forward to seeing this included when the Governance Code is finally published.

"It is essential that staff are involved in developing the agreements on how universities will encourage applications and support more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure widening access becomes a reality."

Robin Parker, NUS Scotland president, said the vote was a "key moment" for students.

"Much of the Post 16 Education Bill has been down to the campaigning work we've seen from students across Scotland calling for legislation on fair access, and for students to be at the centre of our post-16 education system," he said.

"Crucially, it puts widening access agreements in legislation for the first time, creating a strong, national framework for fair access to happen. This will help level the playing field for talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have too often found themselves locked out of higher education."

But Labour's Neil Findlay hit out, saying: "This is a bad bill. Much of it could have been achieved without legislation. It centralises power in the hands of the cabinet secretary, compromises autonomy and accountability, confuses college governance, and has limited ambition on widening access.

Mr Findlay, together with other opposition MSPs, had earlier called on the Scottish government to withdraw the legislation.

"At the time, I called the Bill a dogs breakfast," he recalled. "I want to withdraw that charge as I now realise it was an unfair slight on the pet food industry.

"But the bill should have been withdrawn and brought back in a more coherent and comprehensible state. This would have been the right and responsible thing to do."

Tory MSP Liz Smith said her party remained concerned about the "unintended consequences of forcing universities to adopt prescriptive targets enshrined in legislation", and was "conscious of the lobbying that had taken place by the universities to ensure that ministers will not actually be able to intervene on the admissions process".

Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said he remained unconvinced that legislation in this area was needed, however he welcomed the safeguards included in this part of the bill.

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