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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, April 27, 2023


Portfolio Question Time

Education and Skills

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions on education and skills. I remind members who wish to ask supplementary questions to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question. There is an enormous amount of interest in asking supplementaries, so if I am to get them in—I will try—supplementaries will need to be brief, with no long preambles or five questions masquerading as one. I invite, and would be much obliged to have, brevity, as far as that is possible, in ministers’ responses.

The first question comes from Colin Smyth, who joins us remotely.

Learning Estate Investment Programme

To ask the Scottish Government for what reason there has been a delay in announcing the projects that will form phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme. (S6O-02148)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

I understand that local authorities are keen to get clarity on phase 3 of the learning estate investment programme. In March, the Scottish Government wrote to all local councils to explain that consideration was still on-going for the projects that would form phase 3, and set out the further time that was needed to consider the scope of phase 3, including the need to take account of the impact of market volatility on current projects. However, I am committed to announcing the successful projects by June.

The learning estate investment programme follows on from the successful £1.8 billion Scotland’s schools for the future programme, which delivered 117 new or refurbished schools across Scotland.

Colin Smyth

I do not think that I heard an explanation for the delays. On 22 December 2021, the Scottish Government told Parliament that the projects that will form phase 3 will be announced “within ...12 months” but, 16 months on, we are no further forward.

I hope that, this time, the Government will stick to its new timetable, because the consequences of those delays are that projects such as Dumfries learning town have been put on hold, and the overall cost of projects will be higher, due to the delays. Will the Government ensure that there will be additional funding to take account of the construction inflation—including funding to cover the council’s share of those costs, which have been caused by the Government’s delays—so that no project loses out as a result of the delays?

Jenny Gilruth

In my initial response, I gave an outline in relation to the delay, and that related to market volatility. Colin Smyth will also appreciate that we have had a change in cabinet secretary and that, therefore, there has been a pause in that respect. However, I am absolutely committed to bringing forward the programme in time for the June deadline that I set out.

It is worth recognising that the latest school estate statistics show that a record number of schools are now in good or satisfactory condition: the proportion of schools in good or satisfactory condition has increased from 61 per cent in April 2007 to just over 90 per cent in April of last year. That is welcome news and there is more that we can do. I recognise the member’s interest in the matter and I look forward to giving him an update in the coming weeks.

Ivan McKee (Glasgow Provan) (SNP)

Recent analysis has shown that, between 2015 and 2022, the cost of construction materials including cement, timber and steel increased by 60 per cent. Can the cabinet secretary outline the pressures that that brings to delivery of projects such as new schools and how the Scottish Government is tackling that?

Jenny Gilruth

As we heard at First Minister’s question time today, there has been a period of particular market volatility, which has impacted on a lot of infrastructure projects. From my previous experience as Minister for Transport, I know that between 2015 and 2022 material, labour and overall project costs have steadily increased. We need to be mindful of that pressure and recognise what it brings to some of our projects, but I absolutely commit to Parliament to bring back an update on the LEIP, because I know how vitally important it is that we invest in our schools estate.

The next question comes from Neil Bibby, who joins us remotely.

West College Scotland

To ask the Scottish Government when it last met with West College Scotland, and what was discussed. (S6O-02149)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The Scottish Government’s most recent engagement with West College Scotland was last week, on Tuesday 18 April. My officials met members of the senior management team, as part of a programme of active engagement on the interim purpose and principles for post-school education, research and skills that were published last December. The discussion focused on the college’s reflections on the interim purpose and principles.

Neil Bibby

Recent months have been particularly tough for Inverclyde, with job losses at Amazon. Meanwhile, West College Scotland’s Finnart Street campus in Greenock has expired and urgently needs to be replaced, but plans for a new campus keep getting kicked down the road. Does the minister accept the need for a new college campus in Inverclyde? Will the minister meet me to discuss that issue as well as support for the existing estate, to make sure that it remains fit for purpose and compatible with net zero targets?

Graeme Dey

There has been an increase in the Government’s capital funding for colleges this financial year, but I recognise the challenges that colleges are facing not only around maintenance but in relation to upgrading and replacing buildings. In relation to West College Scotland, I am aware of issues with the Oakshaw building in Paisley, for which, I believe, the Scottish Funding Council has provided support of £500,000 towards a temporary rewiring solution. As Mr Bibby alluded to, I also know that the SFC has provided financial assistance to the college to update the outline business case for improving the situation at Greenock.

If an opportunity arises to meet the college in due course, I will be happy to accept that and to discuss whichever matters it might wish to discuss.

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

This Scottish National Party-led Scottish Government is providing our further education students with record levels of support—£141 million in 2021, which is a 54 per cent increase in real terms since 2006-07. Will the cabinet secretary detail how that investment in the future of our young people is benefiting students such as those at West College Scotland?

Graeme Dey

Our investment continues to make a real difference to the lives of young people across Scotland by helping them to continue in their studies. West College Scotland is one of our largest colleges, with more than 20,000 students. It provides valuable opportunities for those who are furthest from the workplace. It is doing really good work, and I am delighted that we have been able to continue the level of funding for student support in this coming financial year.

Universal Free School Meals (Secondary Schools)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide an update on what progress has been made on its commitment to pilot access to universal free school meals in secondary schools. (S6O-02150)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

All primary school pupils in primaries 1 to 5, children in funded early learning and childcare, and eligible pupils in primary 6 through to secondary 6 can already benefit from free meals in Scotland, which is the most generous provision anywhere in the United Kingdom, saving parents on average £400 per eligible child per year.

We will need to go further. Our additional investment that was announced on 15 December will continue to fund the expansion of free school meals for all primary 6 and 7 pupils who are in receipt of the Scottish child payment. We remain committed to delivering a pilot of universal free school meals in secondary schools, and we continue to work closely with key delivery partners on our free school meals expansion programme.

I have asked for further advice from officials once that planning work is further progressed, and I will be happy to provide an update at that point to members.

Monica Lennon

I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role.

The Scottish Government’s commitment to expanding access to universal free school meals is welcomed by the whole Parliament. Will the cabinet secretary give an indication of how many secondary schools will be involved in the pilot schemes and when she expects they will start?

What progress has been made on the P6 and 7 roll-out, given that 90,000 children in Scotland have been in receipt of emergency food parcels in the past year?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Monica Lennon for her interest in the issue. She will know that it is a subject that is very close to my heart, as it is to hers.

In relation to the specifics of the question on the free school meals pilot in secondary schools, as I mentioned in my initial answer the detail of that is still being considered by officials. I am more than happy to provide Monica Lennon with an update on that. Additionally, if the member has suggestions about how the pilot might be carried out, I would be more than happy to hear them.

On the question about the wider roll-out to primaries 6 and 7, I am more than happy to give Monica Lennon further updates on that. It is really important that we get the roll-out of the next phase right for Scotland’s children and young people, so we should all be working in a spirit of cross-party consensus, given its importance to our education system.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

As the cabinet secretary noted, Scotland has the most generous provision of free school meals in the UK, and £400 per eligible child is a very notable amount. What difference do free school meals make to the education journey of our young people in Scotland?

Jenny Gilruth

As Karen Adam suggests, and as I alluded in my response to Ms Lennon, the policy is vital to the life chances of our children and young people—especially given the on-going impacts of the cost of living crisis, with many families struggling with the cost of food. We know that school can play a key role in alleviating that burden, and there is evidence that suggests that provision of free school meals can help to close the poverty-related attainment gap, raise attainment and improve school attendance.

As I mentioned in my response to Ms Lennon, there is cross-party support for the policy, and it is important that we continue to work together on that expansion.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the ministers to their new positions.

We need to understand why the number of pupils who are taking school meals is at its lowest for 10 years and why, on census day last year, 60,000 fewer pupils than in 2016 were having a school meal.

I have had teachers and people who work in the school meals service tell me their concerns about how appetising the meals are and about the lack of investment in facilities. What will the cabinet secretary do to increase the take-up rate for school meals?

Jenny Gilruth

Stephen Kerr raises a valid point. I know from my experiences in the classroom that there can often be stigma associated with free school meals. It is important that local authorities and Government work closely on the matter, and I am happy to work with the member on it, additionally. We need to increase uptake, and we need to ensure that there is nutritional value in the meals that are provided.

Higher Education Sector (Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to support the higher education sector. (S6O-02151)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

Our 2023-24 budget allocated nearly £2 billion to Scotland’s universities and colleges through the Scottish Funding Council, demonstrating our commitment to supporting our learners and institutions.

I welcome the recent publication by the SFC of the indicative core funding allocations for 2023-24, which maintain funding levels in teaching and research despite the challenging fiscal environment. That will enable colleges and universities to move forward with their planning for the year ahead.

We have kept our investment in excellent university research at current levels, while increasing our investment in university innovation.

Michael Marra

The minister must be concerned to hear the reaction of Professor Dame Sally Mapstone to the figures that he has laid out, because it raises concerns that the Government’s approach to higher education represents “managed decline”. With a flat-cash budget for universities, which has been loosely termed “transformation funding”, and a failure to invest adequately in research excellence grants, under this Government “managed decline” is what we are seeing.

Can the minister define what the £20 million of transition funding will be spent on? What will he do differently from his predecessor to arrest that managed decline?

As Mr Marra is well aware— [Interruption.]

Mr Marra—please.

Graeme Dey

As Mr Marra is well aware, we are in an extremely challenging financial environment. We are working very closely to deliver the funding that the universities request, against a very difficult financial backdrop. He knows that.

We continue to spend nearly £2 billion a year on Scotland’s universities and colleges through the SFC alone, despite the financial pressures that the Government faces. We remain committed to the long-term success of universities and colleges, as we have demonstrated with the increase in research and innovation funding.

I recognise that Mr Marra and I will disagree on this, but the flat-cash settlement in indicative allocations that he refers to was, against the economic backdrop, as fair as was achievable. Of course, it sets challenges for our colleges and universities. That is why I will, over the coming weeks and months, be engaging with the representative bodies and the individual institutions—I met Sally Mapstone last week—and listening to any ideas that they have for flexibilities or innovative approaches that can help them to meet better the financial and practical challenges that confront them.

I have a number of requests for supplementaries. I want to get through all of them, but they will have to be brief, as will the responses.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Would the minister agree that our students and our universities and colleges have benefited from exchanges with Europe, both with our students going there and top students coming here? Is it not ironic that Labour supports barriers between us and Europe?

Graeme Dey

Since Brexit, European Union students have become ineligible for funding. As a result, there has been a reduction of 64 per cent in the number of students from Europe choosing to study at Scottish universities. That reduction has undoubtedly impacted on our universities.

The Scottish Government welcomes the contribution that European and other international students make to our higher education sector, as well as to our society, our culture and our economy. They add diversity. Any proposals from the United Kingdom Government to add more restrictive visa requirements for European and other international students would be deeply damaging to our world-class university sector.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

I, too, welcome the minister to his new position.

I met Edinburgh College representatives last week. They told me that they are facing extremely difficult budgetary decisions and that they will not receive any funding for pay rises above 2 per cent, and that every 1 per cent over that will cost them £500,000.

I know that the minister shares my concerns for Edinburgh College and other colleges that are facing similar situations. Given the critical role that colleges play in tackling the attainment gap and supporting our economy, can he provide detail about the steps that he is taking to ensure that colleges are fairly funded?

Graeme Dey

I will resist the temptation to make a political point about the impacts on the budget of the Scottish Government that are consequences of economic incompetence at Westminster. I have way too much respect for Sue Webber to go there.

As I just highlighted to Michael Marra, over the next few weeks and months I will engage directly with the colleges and universities. The financial position is extremely serious; the Government is feeling the consequences of that, and so are they. I will listen to any innovative ideas that they have about what we can do differently to support them to cope with some of the financial and practical pressures that they are facing.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

I hear grumbling from Scottish National Party members about “managed decline”. Those are the words of Sally Mapstone, and she knows what she is talking about, because she leads one of the best universities in Scotland.

The decline is never clearer than it is when we look at research performance. We used to get 15 per cent of UK Research Council funding—now, it is down to 12.5 per cent. What is the minister going to do to reverse that decline?

Graeme Dey

What I am going to do is behave more constructively than Willie Rennie just did by engaging with the sector. I met Sally Mapstone last week and will be in listening mode as I go round the universities and colleges, genuinely prepared to listen to any ideas that they have to help to address the challenges that they face.

Pam Gosal (West Scotland) (Con)

There have been cash cuts to the research funding for 2023-2024 of seven of Scotland’s universities, all of which deliver world-leading research. Does the minister find that to be consistent with the Scottish National Party Government’s stated priority to “boost research and innovation”, as is set out in the national strategy for economic transformation?

Be as brief as possible, minister.

Graeme Dey

I am not sighted on the specifics of individual universities’ allocations, so I say with respect that I will not go there. However, I will tell you what the financial position is consistent with. It is consistent with the challenges that we have been set by your Government in Westminster—[Interruption.]—I am sorry, Deputy Presiding Officer; I mean the Conservative Government in Westminster—because of the economic incompetence of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Support (Primary Schools)

5. Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide an update on what progress it has made towards delivering the Bute house agreement commitment to ensure that every child has access to mental health and wellbeing support, including counselling services, in primary school. (S6O-02152)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

We continue to support local authorities with £16 million a year to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services, which are now in place across Scotland. Authorities provide six-monthly reports on the services. More than 14,500 pupils accessed the service between January and June 2022, and more than 6,000 of those reported improved outcomes. The majority of the remaining young people are still accessing the service and therefore outcomes are not yet captured.

It is also important to say that school counselling is just one of a range of services that schools have in place to support pupils’ wellbeing.

Mark Ruskell

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response and welcome her to her new post. We look forward to working with her constructively.

It is critical that every child and young person has access to that support. As the cabinet secretary has already said, councils have been required to share six-monthly reports on access to counsellors in secondary schools and community-based services. Those reports show that the efforts to increase access to counsellors in high schools are really succeeding. However, we lack the equivalent data for primary schools. What consideration has the Government given to expanding the requirement for councils to produce those six-monthly reports to primary schools as well?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank Mr Ruskell for his supplementary question and look forward to working with him. We worked closely in my previous ministerial post and I hope that that can continue.

I very much agree that all children and young people should have access to mental health and wellbeing support in schools. We all know of the impacts of Covid on our school system—the on-going impacts continue to be played out in our classrooms across the country. We need to be mindful of that and provide that support.

I am advised that the six-monthly reports that the member alludes to on community mental health services and school counselling include data on primary school children—the returns from authorities in relation to school counselling services include a breakdown of children and young people accessing the service per year group. Between January and June 2021, 1,300 children in primary schools accessed the school counselling service. More than 1,800 did so between July and December 2021 and more than 3,000 did so between January and June last year. I hope that that gives the member some level of reassurance in relation to the six-monthly reporting.

Again, there are a number of supplementaries. We will try to get through all of them, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Although it is essential to ensure that good mental health services are available in our education system, I am not sure that the increasing need for those services is the only aspect of the crisis. Surely we need to divert resource and attention to preventing poor mental health. Does the cabinet secretary agree that mental health and physical health are related? If so, does she agree that the education system, from pre-school onwards, is the ideal battleground in which to introduce physical activity as a way of combating the rising need for mental health services?

Jenny Gilruth

I very much recognise Brian Whittle’s interest in the issue. Brian Whittle and I were elected at the same time, and I can recall a number of occasions when he has raised the issue in the chamber in the intervening years. I recognise the connection between physical activity and good mental health—very much so in my own life. We need to extend that understanding to young people as well.

The school curriculum in Scotland is built on the four capacities, and in that context there is a capacity for ensuring better mental health. Supporting that through physical activity is vital, so physical education teachers in our secondary schools are fundamental. In our primary sector, our teachers have a key role to play in that endeavour as well. We will continue to provide that additionality in relation to the support for counsellors in our schools.

I was in the Royal high school, not far from the Parliament, last week, where I previously taught, listening to some of the impact that the school counsellor has in that school community. However, the member is right in saying that it is not just about school counsellors in our schools but about that broader approach to support throughout the school community.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Another commitment that was made in the Bute house agreement was to raise awareness and understanding of mental health issues in schools and colleges. However, the National Union of Students Scotland, Colleges Scotland and Universities Scotland have said that student counsellors across Scotland are facing imminent redundancy due to funding ambiguity beyond this academic year.

Will the cabinet secretary commit to providing absolute clarity to the higher education sector today on funding for student counselling services in order to prevent those redundancies and reassure students that they can access the mental health support that they need?

Jenny Gilruth

We confirmed a further £2 million in this academic year—to March of this year—and the Scottish Funding Council has now published guidance on that. We remain very committed to funding the entirety of the current academic year to an amount broadly in line with what was provided in 2021-22, and we have confirmed that to the sector.

The member will understand that final allocations will be confirmed through the Scottish Funding Council shortly. However, I want to put on the record my support for that commitment. It is really important that we continue to support good mental health across our education system.

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Recruitment of healthcare professionals in rural and island areas continues to be a challenge. What measures can be taken to clear waiting lists for mental health treatment and to ensure that counselling services are provided in rural and island primary schools?

Jenny Gilruth

I am not sure whether the member is discussing the issue of child and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—waiting lists. If that is the point that the member is making, I am more than happy to give her an update. It is important to reflect that the number of children starting treatment from CAMHS in the most recent quarter is comfortably one of the highest figures on record; the past four quarters show the four highest figures on record for the numbers of children starting treatment from CAMHS, which is good.

We will need to do more. As I mentioned, I think, in my response to Mr Kerr, I am cognisant of the impact of the pandemic—on-going as it is—on the young people who went through it and were out of formal education for a number of years. We will need to do more, working in local communities to help the provision of support for good mental health.

The Promise

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on its work to keep the Promise to those who are care experienced. (S6O-02153)

The Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise (Natalie Don)

The Scottish Government is strongly committed to keeping the Promise, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to lead that work through this new ministerial post.

I am heartened by the cross-party commitment across the Parliament to introduce the change that is required to ensure that our children and young people feel loved, safe and respected.

Since coming into post, I have received correspondence from a range of partners, and I am excited to have the opportunity to see for myself, in the coming weeks and months, the great work that is under way across Scotland. Last March, the Scottish Government published its Promise implementation plan, “Keeping the promise to our children, young people and families”, and we continue to build change in our education, health and justice agendas.

Collette Stevenson

I welcome the minister to her new role. Will she outline the continued engagement that the Scottish Government is having with children and young people who are in the care system as well as those who are care experienced? What steps is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that young people have the support of scaffolding to lead independent lives as young adults?

Natalie Don

The previous First Minister and Minister for Children and Young People met regularly with members of the care-experienced community, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to carry that engagement on.

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that, in developing the policy and legislative change that is required to keep the Promise, the voice of the care-experienced community continues to inform the actions that we take. That is essential. We continue to work with our partners, including The Promise Scotland, Who Cares? Scotland, the local champions network boards, and through the Promise design school, to ensure that their voice is heard.

We know that many young people with experience of care might not have access to the same family networks, support or opportunities as their non-care-experienced peers. Providing the right and timely support in the move to independent living is essential, and we are committed to supporting transition through inclusive and accessible support for education, employment, transport and housing. We have committed £10 million to the introduction of a care leaver payment in this parliamentary term to provide further support to the 50,000 young care-experienced people between the ages of 16 and 26.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the cabinet secretary and ministers to their new and transferred posts.

With regard to the data that is required, the Data for Children Collaborative has highlighted a shortfall from the third sector and stakeholders by the use of questionnaires. What will the minister do to address the concern that obtaining quality assurance over information will require on-going resource and work?

Please be as brief as possible, minister.

Natalie Don

We understand that the recording of that data is absolutely essential, and that is something that I will be working on. As the member is aware, I am fairly new to this post, but that is something that I am happy to come back to him on.

School Buildings (Condition)

7. Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that school buildings remain safe and in good condition. (S6O-02154)

The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (Jenny Gilruth)

It is the statutory duty of local authorities to manage and maintain their school estate and we expect them to provide a safe environment for all school users. There are a record number of schools in good or satisfactory condition, and the proportion of schools in those categories increased from 61 per cent in April 2007 to just over 90 per cent in April last year.

The Scottish Government, in partnership with local councils, is providing significant funding for schools through the £2 billion learning estate investment programme, which will provide benefits to tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland.

Miles Briggs

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. The danger of toxic asbestos is common knowledge. Despite that, however, over 1,700 schools across Scotland still contain this hazardous material. It is critical that the Scottish Government and councils act as quickly as possible to remove asbestos from the Scottish school estate to ensure that pupils, teachers and staff across Scotland are learning and working in a safe environment.

What progress has the Scottish Government made on removing asbestos from schools? What impact assessments have been undertaken to look at where there is currently asbestos in the school estate and where it should be removed? What timescale will the Government develop to make sure that that happens?

Jenny Gilruth

I thank the member for his question. He raises a really important point. It is, of course, the case that local authorities have a responsibility for our school buildings, but I recognise that the member’s colleague made a freedom of information request on the matter very recently and I have asked officials for additional advice in relation to action that the Government may be able to take on the issue.

It remains on-going. A number of the schools that we are talking about are in historically old buildings. I confess that the last building that I worked in, over in Fife, had asbestos in it. It is soon to be replaced with a brand new building, thanks to this Government. That is hugely important as we move forward in improving the school estate, but we need to recognise some of the challenge here.

The other point to mention is that health and safety legislation is not devolved to the Scottish Government. The Health and Safety Executive is a United Kingdom-wide body. I have therefore commissioned advice from officials on what more we might be able to do in this space in relation to school buildings.

We will have a brief supplementary question from Stephanie Callaghan.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

It is worth mentioning that the management of asbestos is the same right across the UK. It is vital to note that asbestos should remain in situ while it is in good condition as it is dangerous only when it is disturbed. Can the cabinet secretary expand on some of the detail of that?

Please be brief, cabinet secretary.

Jenny Gilruth

As I reiterated in my response to Miles Briggs, it is the case that the Health and Safety Executive operates at a UK-wide level. I have commissioned advice from officials in relation to further action that the Scottish Government might be able to take in this space.

Thank you. We have a bit of time over the course of the afternoon, so I call question 8.

Scottish Funding Council (Indicative Budget Allocations 2023-24)

8. Roz McCall (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the announcement of the Scottish Funding Council’s indicative budget allocations for 2023-24. (S6O-02155)

The Minister for Higher and Further Education; and Minister for Veterans (Graeme Dey)

The Scottish Government very much welcomes the publication of the 2023-24 indicative core funding allocations by the Scottish Funding Council, which enables colleges and universities to move forward with their planning for the academic year.

Roz McCall

I thank the minister for that response. A full-blown mental health crisis is unfolding in our universities, as has been pointed out previously. Last year, almost every university reported a sharp increase in the number of mental health support requests, with the number of students coming forward almost tripling compared with the number 10 years ago. It is therefore deeply concerning that the Scottish Funding Council is to cut 80 counsellors, whose funding ended earlier this month. Colleges and universities have made it clear that that counselling will not remain in place without that financial support.

As a member of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, the minister shared my concerns about the impact that those cuts will have on students who are in desperate need of support. What can he do in his new role—I welcome him to it—to ensure that that vital support for our young people in our universities continues?

Graeme Dey

The member is right. I do have an interest in this matter, not just as a minister but prior to that. I offer her the assurance that no such decision has yet been taken, not least because I will have a meeting on this very subject in about an hour and a half’s time.

There are significant financial challenges, which I alluded to earlier, but I fully recognise the benefit that the counsellors have brought to the colleges and universities. I was at Queen Margaret University last week and I heard about that at first hand.

I can make no commitment at this stage, but we recognise the need to provide accessible mental health provision for our students, not only in the universities but in the colleges as well. A student mental health plan is also being developed. I offer the member the reassurance that no decision has been taken on that as yet.

We have time for a couple of supplementaries, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Bill Kidd (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)

The latest higher education student statistics show that, since 2006-07, there has been an increase of 31.4 per cent in the number of Scotland-domiciled full-time first degree entrants to our universities. What link does the minister see between that increase and the decision to introduce free university education by scrapping the graduate endowment? Which party was it that did that?

Graeme Dey

Bearing in mind the Presiding Officer’s instruction, I will say only that it is self-evident that there is such a link and, if memory serves me correctly, it was the Scottish National Party that took the decision in question.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I welcome the minister to his role.

In last year’s letter to the Scottish Funding Council, the Government said that it expected institutions to create a fair and equal society through their work as anchor organisations. The cabinet secretary and the minister will be aware of the University and College Union’s action to boycott marking and assessment as a result of the on-going disputes over pay and conditions, with some universities threatening deductions of up to 100 per cent from the wages of those staff who participate.

Therefore, I ask the minister whether he considers those pay deductions to meet the Government’s expectations; to condemn that action as an attack on the right of workers to strike; to agree to write to institutions and remind them of their fair work obligations; and—

That is a multiple question, Ms Duncan-Glancy. Minister.

Graeme Dey

I will be brief, Deputy Presiding Officer. It is a matter of concern that the dispute has arisen. As recently as last week, I was at Queen Margaret University, where I met lecturers, spoke to the principal and made the point that the issue needed to be addressed.