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Russell under pressure after 'tense' meeting over college waiting lists

EDUCATION Secretary Michael Russell is embroiled in a fresh controversy about his relationship with Scotland's colleges after he had a "tense" meeting with a senior figure in the sector minutes after demanding the resignation of Stow College's chairman, Kirk Ramsay.

Ramsay resigned last week after it was revealed he had secretly recorded a college sector meeting with Russell at the Scottish Parliament, attended by around 100 people. Ramsay defended his actions, but quit after Russell publicly called for him to go.

Shortly after demanding Ramsay's resignation at the meeting on November 7, Russell asked Brian Keegan, chairman of umbrella body Scotland's Colleges, about student waiting lists.

Russell's officials had requested the meeting the previous week to discuss the problem of students struggling to secure college places. The request was made days after the Sunday Herald's sister paper, The Herald, revealed that the college waiting list crisis was worse than originally feared.

Scotland's Colleges had produced figures showing the lists contained around 21,000 applications. John Henderson, the body's chief executive, had been quoted linking the waiting lists row to further education budget cuts.

He said: "Colleges are facing significant ongoing cuts to core teaching budgets and, while they will always strive to be more efficient, the ability to meet demand and maintain quality and breadth of provision will be increasingly difficult."

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, a college sector source said of Russell's time with Keegan: "It would be safe to say Russell was not happy at the meeting."

The source added that Scotland's Colleges, which promotes the further education sector north of the Border, had been finding its voice on further education cuts, a development said to be alarming Russell.

Labour last night renewed demands for an inquiry into Russell's relationships with FE colleges after opposition MSPs claimed last week that the Ramsay resignation was part of a "culture of secrecy, bullying and intimidation" under Russell.

Ramsay said that, at his meeting, Russell "immediately launched into an angry attack, in which he expressed his outrage - He then said quite plainly that, 'If I had the power to remove the chair of the board of a college, I would remove you immediately. You must consider your position, I expect you to resign'."

Labour's education spokesman, Hugh Henry MSP, said: "If Mike Russell won't do the decent thing and resign, we need at least to make sure that the Education Secretary's power to bully and intimidate is curbed.

"I also call on the SNP's convener of the education committee, Stewart Maxwell, to U-turn on his refusal to allow his committee to investigate Mike Russell."

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: "On every issue surrounding Scotland's colleges the Education Secretary has claimed to know best. With the resignation of Kirk Ramsay and now this [news of the meeting with Keegan] it would seem that anyone but Mike Russell will be made to take responsibility for problems in the college sector."

After the Sunday Herald put it to Scotland's Colleges that Keegan's meeting with Russell had been tense and unhappy, a spokesman said: "No comment from Scotland's Colleges."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning met Brian Keegan in his capacity as chairman of Scotland's Colleges to discuss their research into waiting lists.

"Mr Russell also gave Mr Keegan advance notice that an audit of waiting lists would be announced that week. The meeting was productive."

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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