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The difficult question of expenses in our colleges

The expenses bill of £135,000 run up by the office of former first minister Henry McLeish is eye-opening for a couple of reasons.

The first relates to Mr McLeish himself, who was forced from high office after the expenses inquiry which became known as 'Officegate'. The reasons for the incurring of expenses may be totally different but one might have expected the former Central Fife MSP to have been alert to any question of expenses while he was leading the Glasgow College Region through restructuring.

It should be emphasised that there is no suggestion of wrongful personal gain. The Glasgow Regional Colleges Board says the bulk of the money went on paying for two staff members and the bill run up with the Scottish Funding Council represents about £105,000 for staff and running costs.

It is also not obvious why staff costs were so much more for this region than for any of the others. Mr McLeish himself claimed £31,535 for national project work and other expenses.

The cost certainly stands out, partly because of the nature of Mr McLeish's untimely exit from the Holyrood hot seat but mainly because in his role as head of Glasgow College Region his office claimed the highest sum of the three multi-college regions set up under college reforms brought in this year. Ian McKay of Edinburgh and Linda McTavish of Lanarkshire spent £24,000 and less than £10,000 respectively.

Indeed the Glasgow office figure is more than the amount claimed by all other regions put together.

So the second, more important issue it raises is about the allegedly cost-saving nature of the reforms.

College regionalisation was meant to cut down on excessive bureaucracy by merging neighbouring colleges to save on administrative and other duplications and drive efficiency.

Restructuring has undoubtedly delivered cost savings. But education union the EIS is right to point out that staff and students alike will be concerned if money saved through cuts is squandered on unnecessary administrative expenditure.

It is fair to say that with three colleges merging the Glasgow College Region was always going to be a more complex and technical proposition.

But the board has also claimed that one source of expense was an office set up in Glasgow Caledonian University rather than in one of the three colleges to promote "a degree of neutrality". This is a symptom of political sensitivities and rivalries which one would have hoped those in public office could resolve without excessive cost to the public purse. However, it is a reminder of difficulties which have historically dogged attempts to merge Glasgow colleges.

Opposition politicians would like to see answers given about the amount claimed by Mr McLeish, who has recently been confirmed as chairman of his region for the next four years. He will point to his additional duties not held by his eight counterparts in other regions, including heading the national leads group and a transitional board for the organisation Colleges Scotland.

But it would benefit all involved if Mr McLeish could make clear what project work and other expenses led to this sizeable bill. Meanwhile, ministers must be careful unnecessary cost is not incurred in the name of efficiency.

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