MSPs have been urged to intervene in the case of a crisis-hit college after it refused to release a report into misconduct allegations.

Union leaders want to see urgent political action to address to what they have described as the “appalling” situation at South Lanarkshire College (SLC).

Their call comes after The Herald revealed in December that Aileen McKechnie, SLC principal and chief executive, and Brian Keegan, Interim Clerk to the Board of Management, had been suspended. College bosses said they had acted so “various complaints” could be addressed fairly.

The Herald has learned that, in December, the SLC Board launched two further investigations into governance “concerns”, which are continuing. The Scottish Government said it was determined to safeguard “quality of learning” at the college.

However, employees are deeply unhappy. Members of the SLC Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) branch have already passed votes of no confidence in the Board and its chair Andy Kerr, a former Labour MSP and minister. Funding bosses say the Board has now been “refreshed”.

Current developments follow Ms McKechnie’s previous decision to order a probe into allegations of misconduct at the college. This resulted in auditors producing a document that made “a number of recommendations for improvements to internal procedures”. College bosses said in September last year that they had accepted “all the recommendations in full”, with news of Ms McKechnie’s suspension emerging suddenly just weeks later.

COMMENT: 'College governance questions still to be answered'

Union leaders warned the sequence of events had sparked deep worry and suspicion within the college community.

Amid intensifying disquiet, The Herald submitted a Freedom of Information request for a copy of the auditors’ report. However, in an official response, acting principal Liz McIntyre said SLC would not be releasing it. Her letter states: “I can confirm that all internal audit reports are provided to the College for the purposes of advice to the Board of Management on matters relating to Governance at the College. For that reason, these reports are covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and specifically, Section 30(b)(i) and Section 30(b)(ii) which exempt information by way of the free and frank provision of advice for the purposes of deliberation.”

John Kelly, EIS-FELA’s national salaries convener, said he was profoundly concerned. “Lack of transparency seems to be a problem in public life at the moment,” he added.

“The groups of people who are supposed to have oversight on what happens within a college include the Board of Management of the college, and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). The clue to what they are supposed to do in their roles can be spotted in the titles, management and funding being key words.

“For months now at South Lanarkshire College we have had a publicly funded body running with its chief operating officer suspended, along with the clerk to the Board of Management.

“Neither the Board or the Funding Council seem interested in providing any public comment of substance, while staff and students worry about the operations of the college. This is an appalling situation.”

HeraldScotland: Andy Kerr is a former Labour MSP and minister.Andy Kerr is a former Labour MSP and minister.

He went on: “I urge all of our MSPs to take an interest this case, and to press the SFC to take more care of the funding of our colleges. They could begin by asking for the full publication of a report commissioned by the suspended principal.”

SLC’s predicament is likely to raise further questions over Scotland’s further education governance structures.

The Post-16 Education (Scotland) Act 2013 and the Lanarkshire Colleges Order 2014 made the Board of New College Lanarkshire (NCL) the Regional Strategic Body (RSB), with overarching responsibility for the planning and delivery of provision via its two colleges. The Lanarkshire Order also assigned SLC to NCL.

However, an SFC review published in 2020 said the structure had "not as yet been able to deliver any significant regional benefits or added value for students and other stakeholders". Recommending that the RSB be dissolved, it added that arrangements were “not well understood or accepted, and lead to constant friction”.

An SLC spokesman confirmed “governance concerns” had prompted the college Board to commission two “externally led, independent” investigations. He added: “The investigations commenced in early December and are ongoing. On legal advice, no further comment can be made.

“The provision of high-quality learning remains the priority for the Board and the staff at the college. College operations continue to be led by a highly experienced management team, currently under the leadership of Liz McIntyre, acting principal.”

READ MORE: College bosses suspend principal and senior figure

An SFC spokesman said: "After being alerted to potential governance issues at South Lanarkshire College, SFC commissioned an independent preliminary review of governance. The results of this review were shared with the relevant parties involved, including with the Regional Strategic Body that oversees South Lanarkshire College.

"The recommendations from the review led to the development of a governance improvement plan by the college that will address required improvements. Two further independent external investigations on governance matters are currently underway, overseen by a refreshed Board.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ministers’ paramount interest is safeguarding the quality of learning at South Lanarkshire College, and high standards of governance are crucial in ensuring this. 

“The Scottish Funding Council, as the body with responsibility for investigating governance issues, will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the Scottish Government.”

NCL declined to comment, saying current concerns were a matter for SLC.