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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 30, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 30 March 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Elmwood Campus, Mental Health Strategy, Transvaginal Mesh Implants, Unconventional Oil and Gas, Enterprise and Skills Review, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


Elmwood Campus

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

As the Parliament is still sitting, I ask members of the public to leave quietly, please.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-04703, in the name of Willie Rennie, on the future of Elmwood campus. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that Elmwood College in Cupar was the first regional farm centre to be established in Scotland; recognises its work in rural education including its worldwide expertise in golf education and training; understands that the college functions were divided between the Scottish Rural University College and Fife College in November 2013, before Fife College vacated the Elmwood Campus in summer 2016; notes with concern that there are now fewer students studying at Elmwood and fewer courses available; welcomes the discussions between Fife College, SRUC and the Scottish Funding Council on a plan for the future, and notes the hope that this will result in a sustainable partnership delivering more courses for more students.

12:52  

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Presiding Officer, you encouraged members of the public to leave the gallery quietly, but they can, of course, stay if they wish to listen to the debate.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Yes—members of the public may stay if they wish to be entertained by Mr Rennie.

Willie Rennie

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate Elmwood campus—formerly Elmwood College—in Cupar, in my constituency. It is a great seat of learning that is open for business, with great staff, students and courses. The bad news is this: according to the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council,

“Following the transfer of Fife College’s offer at Elmwood Campus to other campuses in the area, provision at the Elmwood Campus of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is no longer viable.”

The good news is that I know that the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science will be keen to assist, and she will want to provide sufficient guarantees to ensure that there is a vibrant centre of education in the heart of north-east Fife for years to come. I want her to broker an agreement between Fife College and Scotland’s Rural College; to find the revenue for student activity to ensure that there is a critical mass of activity; and to provide a new building to replace the existing ageing buildings.

Elmwood began its life back in the 1950s, with around 100 students, and it acquired a new purpose-built building in the 1960s before becoming, in 1972, Elmwood Agricultural and Technical College—the first regional farm centre in Scotland—with around 2,000 students. Stratheden hospital farm was purchased in 1971 to offer hill farming and shepherding courses.

In 1997, the college became the first educational establishment in Britain to have its own 18-hole working golf course, only 9 miles from St Andrews. The golf there is recognised globally. Students of the higher national certificate and higher national diploma courses in professional golf have found careers as Professional Golfers Association assistants at world-famous clubs such as Gullane, North Berwick, Ladybank and Royal Troon, as well as at numerous clubs across Europe and in Dubai.

Elmwood became part of SRUC on 1 October 2012. Today, the SRUC Elmwood campus offers courses in animal care, sport, golf, greenkeeping, horticulture, hospitality and rural skills.

What is the problem? It is that the settlement that followed the Government’s decision to split Elmwood between Fife College and SRUC was inherently unstable. SRUC had well-publicised leadership issues and there were clear financial issues, too, with significant cuts imposed by the Scottish Government to the further education budget. Elmwood was left rudderless. SRUC was uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns of Fife College and its own staff in Cupar. The sale of the farm and courses moving to other centres such as the Oatridge campus compounded the problem.

The division of the campus between Fife College and SRUC created instability, with Fife College claiming that it was unsustainable for it as it had none of the assets but was expected to pay a share of the costs. Fife College subsequently, and rather hastily, pulled out, promising to provide entry-level courses in local schools such as Bell Baxter high school, but that has not happened. The combination of the withdrawal of Fife College and the removal of some courses by SRUC left the Elmwood campus underutilised. That is why the current set-up has been judged by the Scottish funding council as being not viable.

North-east Fife has a long agricultural heritage, which was the reason for the college being located there in the first place. In addition, with the home of golf at St Andrews on its doorstep, the golf provision, in terms of both greenkeeping and sport, is a clear draw for students. North-east Fife is also a rural and remote area that needs further education provision locally, and we have a centre of learning with excellent staff operating there right now. Those are the reasons why the college in Cupar is essential.

We will need a new building that is fit for purpose and combines the needs of rural education from SRUC and further education from Fife College. The current building has a significant maintenance cost attached to it, so it needs to be replaced. I say gently to the minister that those problems really began only when the regionalisation of colleges was introduced by the Scottish Government. I therefore equally gently suggest that the Government has a responsibility to secure a longer-term future for the college in Cupar.

The Scottish funding council has issued a tender for a study that is entitled “North East Fife FE curriculum study” and which starts as follows:

“Following the transfer of Fife College’s offer at Elmwood Campus to other campuses in the area, provision at the Elmwood Campus of Scotland’s Rural College ... is no longer viable. As a consequence, there is a need, through an evidence based study, to identify the curriculum needs for the area and develop a viable model for its delivery.”

The remit of the study is to identify an appropriate curriculum offer for north-east Fife that meets the economic needs and student demand for the area; to consider and identify speciality courses, aligned with the economic development strategy in north-east Fife, that would attract students from outside the area; and to identify a viable delivery model for the area, including shared and co-location options. That sounds promising, but the trouble is that the work is to be carried out through March and April, although we need decisions to be made now in order to be ready for the academic year 2018-19. We need the combination of rural education and further education, including both entry-level and full-time FE courses, to be provided in the Cupar area in a new building.

We need a joint plan, funding for more student places and a new building. That is the challenge for the minister today and I look forward to her response.

12:59  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I thank Willie Rennie for lodging the motion on the Elmwood campus in Cupar. When I was growing up, it was known as Elmwood College, and we could go there to get our hair cut. Indeed, my friends and I regularly got haircuts for the bargain price of £10. As you might know, Presiding Officer, I have a little more hair than Willie Rennie, so I am sure that you will agree that that was quite a bargain in 2001. In our last year at school, we could go to Elmwood and study for a higher in psychology, which allowed many of my friends to pick up the extra credits that they needed to get into university. Every May, my mum and others from all over north-east Fife would descend upon the college at the summer open day to locate the perfect hanging baskets, beautifully planted and prepared by the students.

The college is of vital importance for the rural economy in the northern part of the kingdom. For many future gamekeepers and farmers, it continues to provide a stepping stone from school to employment.

When I met the former principal of Fife College, Hugh Logan, he was of the view that there were issues with regard to the maintenance of college buildings, and that that issue with estates was not specific to the Cupar campus. Last year, I visited the new Levenmouth campus, to which full-time programmes were transferred from Elmwood. My colleague David Torrance MSP and I met lecturers and students to discuss their experiences in the new building. Beauty students now have access to state-of-the-art facilities, with treatment rooms. Hair students have access to a modern salon. Childcare students have spacious tutorial rooms and wi-fi access across the building.

The campus has been supported by £25 million of investment from the Scottish Government, and it sits alongside the new Levenmouth academy. However, a lot of the staff at the new building have to travel from north-east Fife to their new workplace in Buckhaven and, although the facilities are excellent and the staff were positive about their surroundings, transport links to the new campus are still in their infancy. Many of my constituents in the Glenrothes area have spoken of the difficulties that they have had in accessing the buses, with some having to catch two or three buses, and they have pointed out the infrequency of the service. That issue is perhaps even more pressing, given the rurality of north-east Fife and the distances that people travel from places such as Tayport or Anstruther and the east neuk.

On a specific point relating to my constituency, I would be remiss in my duty as the member for Mid Fife and Glenrothes if I did not emphasise to the minister the importance of infrastructure, particularly the need for the reinstatement of the Levenmouth rail link. Education and closing the poverty-related attainment gap are the number 1 priority for the Scottish Government, but we need the transport links to join up aspiration and ambition in the next generation, to enable young people to access vital learning and job opportunities.

That is of particular importance when we consider that, in 2015-16, the college delivered 8.4 per cent of activity to students from the country’s 10 per cent most deprived areas—an increase from 8.2 per cent 2014-15 and 7.9 per cent in 2013-14 respectively.

Since last summer, Elmwood campus has been run completely by Scotland’s Rural College, as Willie Rennie said. The land-based courses, for which Elmwood has always had a good reputation, continue to run. Those include gamekeeping, wildlife management, horticulture and a selection of golf and greenkeeping-related qualifications. Notwithstanding that fact, the Government has recognised the need to review curriculum provision and, since the end of last month, Rocket Science consultants have been commissioned to do exactly that. Although I am the member for the neighbouring constituency, I very much hope that the Rocket Science consultants will reconsider curriculum provision at Elmwood.

For young people like me who grew up in the wee towns and villages of north-east Fife, where the buses are not regular and there is no rail service, let us look again at Elmwood to ensure that all students and would-be students get equal access to further education opportunities wherever they live in Fife.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

To clarify, did you say Rocket Science consultants?

Jenny Gilruth

That is correct.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

My goodness, there is a name.

13:03  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Presiding Officer, I hope that you are not thinking of changing your profession.

I thank Willie Rennie for lodging the motion for today’s debate and for giving us the opportunity to discuss the future of the SRUC Elmwood campus in Cupar. I also take the opportunity to thank all the staff and students for the outstanding work they do, particularly in an area of north-east Fife that some consider to be a little more isolated in terms of accessing further and higher education, and which has the access problems that Jenny Gilruth has referred to.

Along with St Andrews, Cupar is a town that I know well and I admire its proud agricultural heritage and its role as an important market town for the surrounding area. Its economy reflects that heritage, with major employers in the area including agri-businesses such as Kettle Produce Ltd, Scotsfruit Ltd, Quaker Oats Ltd and Fisher and Donaldson. One of the other large employers in the town is the Elmwood campus itself. It is part of the agricultural heritage of the area, and that is just one of the strong reasons for ensuring that everything possible is done to secure its future.

Willie Rennie is right to point to the challenges facing the college at a time of financial stringency, of changing roles for colleges, of the widening access programme, of colleges being asked to deliver more in terms of higher education courses, and of the on-going challenges that colleges face in the post-merger era, which, as Audit Scotland noted in its most recent report, has brought additional pressures.

The three parts to Elmwood campus—Carslogie Road, the golf course facility at Stratheden, which was added in 1997, and Cupar Muir farm—all have distinctive courses on offer, such as animal care, sport, horticulture and cookery.

As the motion notes, the college has been especially well known for its golf and greenkeeping courses, in which it has world-leading expertise and which have produced a number of distinguished golfing alumni. The facilities at the college’s Stratheden campus are excellent and it is the only educational facility in the country with its own 18-hole golf course. Where better to have such expertise than a short hop away from St Andrews, the home of golf?

Clearly, there has been a recent history of difficult issues at the college, such as the weakness in collaboration between Fife College and SRUC, the tough financial cuts that colleges have faced and the concerns about future job cuts. Naturally, with the funding council questioning the viability of Elmwood against that economic background, staff and students have a right to feel somewhat threatened when it comes to the educational opportunities available, with obvious implications for staff and student morale.

I add my support to what Willie Rennie has said about the splitting of Elmwood between Fife College and SRUC and the inherent instability of that arrangement. Although I recognise that there is a funding issue here—and it is quite a big funding issue—he is right to call for measures that would put the college on a sustainable footing.

College education is vital because it has the best chance of responding quickly to the needs of the local economy, whether that be in terms of apprenticeships and part-time and more flexible courses—which, sadly, have suffered in so many of the recent cuts—or responding to a more diverse and fast-changing labour market, both of which could hardly be more important in an area where the access to further education is more limited than it is in some other areas. Indeed, that diversity of provision in order to respond to the needs of local economies is one of the most powerful arguments in favour of college education.

The call for the minister to broker an agreement between Fife College and SRUC is an important one. We can do a lot to try to move that process forward—and I hope that the minister will take up that point. I understand that this difficult situation is against the backdrop of the difficult challenges in the college sector, but I support Willie Rennie in wanting to move forward matters, and I am happy to support the motion.

13:07  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I, too, will speak—briefly—in support of Willie Rennie’s motion. I acknowledge the campaign that he has been running over a period to get recognition of the difficulties that the college faces. It is important to make that point to the minister. Mr Rennie is calling on the minister to give a guarantee that the Government will take the necessary steps to ensure the college’s future viability. That campaign would be supported not only in north-east Fife, but across Fife.

Over many years, Elmwood College has played an important part in Fife. It is not only important to the agricultural industry that predominates in north-east Fife, but has created jobs across Fife. I was aware of Elmwood College from an early age, because when I was little boy one of my cousins decided to have a gardening career and attended the college to learn his trade. He recently retired after a lifelong career as a very successful gardener.

I also have many friends who work on golf courses and who had college experience at Elmwood as apprentice gardeners. I started off my working life as gardener for the local authority, so I have always been familiar with Elmwood College.

A few years ago, I attended an event that was organised by the Fife Society for the Blind when it opened facilities at Elmwood College through investment that had been gifted through a local trust. I remember meeting a number of pupils and teachers from a specialist support unit in the college, which supported people on the autistic spectrum. The provision and support were second to none.

Elmwood College has played an important part in Fife, and I think that its being split between Fife College and SRUC has not worked out, for the reasons that Mr Rennie has set out. One reason is the actual building; if we are serious about continuing with Elmwood College, part of the ask must be that we examine the facilities.

At First Minister’s question time, Kenneth Gibson talked about

“a bumper year for ... tourism”.

Last night, I spoke at an event in Dunfermline at which we launched an ambitious programme for our national artworks to be shown at junction 4 of the M90 at Kelty, and I made the point that far too often tourists come to Edinburgh then cross the Forth road bridge or the rail bridge—of course, we now have the wonderful new bridge—and go up through, and out the other side of Fife, to get into the Highlands. We need to do more to get people to stay in Fife. For example, we have some of the country’s best and most famous golf courses, and we have outdoor facilities such as Lochore meadows country park. There is a lot of ambition in Fife to develop outdoor activities, and outdoor tourism is a major contributor to the Fife economy.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Can I ask you to wind up this tourism plug for Fife? I am a bit lost as to where Elmwood College comes into this.

Alex Rowley

Elmwood College can play a crucial role in providing the support, the training and the skills to develop tourism in Fife. We need investment in Elmwood.

I am happy to support Mr Rennie this afternoon.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I should not try to teach an old dog new tricks. You got me there, Mr Rowley.

13:12  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank Willie Rennie for bringing the debate to the chamber on this lunch time, and for his wider efforts in championing a sustainable future for Elmwood College. I know that he has worked on the issue for many years.

It is clear, however, that for a number of years arrangements at Elmwood have not been living up to the needs of the communities that it serves, so it is regrettable that we have now reached crisis point. I want briefly to consider the wider context of Elmwood’s situation and to highlight some points that I hope will be taken into account in the funding council study that is under way.

Willie Rennie raised college regionalisation. Although it is fair to say that the regionalisation process that the Scottish National Party Government instigated in the previous session has had its troubles, it is also important to acknowledge that regionalisation is not the sole reason for the situation at Elmwood. The University of the Highlands and Islands provides a world-leading example of how, when it is done well, regionalisation of education provision brings huge benefits to our most rural areas, and creates opportunities for study, work and specialist training right in the heart of communities that need them.

The initial partnership between SRUC and Fife College at Elmwood was an acknowledgement that the campus delivered specialist rural training and education that Fife College was not able to provide. With proper support and willingness on all sides, that partnership could have been fruitful, so I urge the funding council and ministers to learn from the example that has been set by UHI and its partnerships with specialist institutions including the North Atlantic fisheries college marine centre and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig to see how this sort of thing can be done successfully.

However, we should also recognise the wider challenges that face both the further education sector and our rural communities more generally, and which have contributed to making college provision at Elmwood untenable. The lack of clear and accessible financial support for college students continues to make further education an unattractive prospect for many young people. In our manifesto last year, the Greens called for funding parity between college and university students to ensure that those who study at institutions such as Elmwood have the same certainty of financial support as their friends who study at university. Implementing such a measure could have a major impact on college admissions not just at Elmwood but across the further education sector.

As Jenny Gilruth highlighted, the patchy and increasingly expensive public transport service in north-east Fife is also a contributing factor, with many people finding that they might as well travel to Perth, Dundee or St Andrews for education as battle their way on a slow local bus service to Cupar.

I encourage the funding council to consider the wider problems of our rural communities when designing a suitable model for further education in north-east Fife. If we are to provide funding to create more college places, we need to ensure that they are for courses that people want to study and which are delivered in a way that suits their lifestyles. On average, the area has an older population than the rest of Scotland and, in reality, many prospective students are not school leavers, but are working-age or older people who want to return to employment after a break, to fit in study around caring responsibilities or to learn a new skill later in life. The pattern that we have seen in recent years of cutting part-time and flexible learning courses to focus on full-time vocational training does not always suit the needs of that demographic and might be a major contributor to the fall in student numbers at Elmwood, which had been in decline for some time before Fife College withdrew from the campus.

I commend the work of the supported accommodation service at Elmwood—Alex Rowley already mentioned it—which provides safe and supported living for seven SRUC students who have additional needs. That kind of provision is all too rare, and it faces its own financial challenges and often relies on additional funding from third-party organisations and families. I strongly advise the funding council to maintain and enhance that service.

13:16  

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I thank Willie Rennie for bringing the motion to the chamber and I congratulate him on securing this important debate on the future for Elmwood campus.

As we have heard, Elmwood campus is located in Cupar, which is the historical county town of Fife. It has a strong history in agriculture and it is still regarded as an important market town. The area around Cupar is well known for its world-famous golf courses and the campus is only nine miles from St Andrews.

Given the agricultural and golfing background, it is not surprising that Elmwood is well known for offering a range of agricultural and golf-related courses. Before looking at some of the challenges that the campus faces, it is worth considering the benefits and potential of the diverse range of courses that are on offer. The agricultural courses help to provide rural businesses around Scotland with a well-skilled workforce. Scotland’s rural industry is constantly changing, so we should, in order to meet the needs of the industry and to provide students with the necessary skills base, support colleges such as Elmwood to develop its growing range of specialist education.

The golfing education that is available at Elmwood has gained global recognition for the college as the premier training provider to the golf industry in Scotland. It is also increasingly involved in activities beyond the United Kingdom and attracts many students from overseas. The golf programmes lead to degree and masters degree awards. The campus is—rightly—positioning itself as the home of golf education. There is a huge market that it can potentially serve: the United Kingdom golf industry is expanding and employs more than 75,000 people. Golfers in the UK spent more than £4 billion on the sport last year and golf tourism is a major part of the Scottish tourist sector.

Given the unique offering of the Elmwood campus, I urge the minister to have a conversation with her colleagues under the economy brief to see what Scottish Development International can do to promote the various golf-related courses to students overseas—especially in Asia, where the market for golf and golf knowledge is experiencing significant growth—because an increase in the number of overseas students would help to create a critical mass of students. I am not a golf expert, but I can see the attraction of studying golf a mere 10 minutes away from the home of golf. On a less positive note, there are, as Willie Rennie highlighted, challenges in relation to achieving that critical mass of students and the resources that should be available at Elmwood. Other members have explained the detailed issues: I will highlight a few.

There is a local economy dimension to the debate. It is important to recognise the valuable contribution that the campus brings to north-east Fife and the surrounding economy through its employment opportunities, the provision of skilled graduates and its overall economic contribution. In addition, further education options in the area are limited, which makes the debate all the more important. To lose Elmwood campus would be a further blow when there has already been a reduction in availability of college courses to people who live in the Cupar area and the surrounding towns.

There is also a consideration of timing, as Willie Rennie noted. The outcome of the study into possible alternative options that is being undertaken by the funding council will be available only in time for the academic year 2018-19, which is not ideal. Students and staff are looking for clarity sooner rather than later, so I encourage the minister to consider that timetable.

As other members have done, I want to praise the staff and students who work and study at Elmwood campus, who remain committed to providing high-quality education and training in north-east Fife.

Colleges play a critical role in our education system. However, there are now 150,000 fewer students in colleges than there were 10 years ago. Further cuts, especially in rural areas such as around Cupar, would be unwelcome and damaging. I add my support to the calls on the minister to encourage an agreement between Fife College and SRUC on securing a viable future for the Elmwood campus. I thank Willie Rennie for bringing the debate to the chamber.

13:20  

The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science (Shirley-Anne Somerville)

I thank Willie Rennie for bringing this debate to the chamber. I hope that we can all agree that we are effectively seeking the same thing for the people of Cupar, and north-east Fife more generally, which is to have the right learning opportunities to meet the economic needs of the area.

The kingdom of Fife is a part of Scotland that is very close to my heart. It is not, therefore, only from my position as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science that I appreciate and understand the sentiment of Willie Rennie’s motion, which I broadly welcome.

I, and I hope the rest of the chamber, fully understand the role that Elmwood has played in rural education in this country and the issues associated with Fife College vacating the campus from last summer. I am pleased to be closing today’s debate in order to outline how both institutions are being supported to ensure that the right solution is found for the residents of Cupar and north-east Fife.

I begin with some of the aspects that members have raised. One of the concerns has been about the split of courses between Fife College and SRUC. That was done to ensure that SRUC can continue to focus and specialise on the land-based education that is its remit. That is why the decision was taken to make the split: it was not done arbitrarily and it was not, as a member suggested, done by the Government. It was done with a mind to the focus of what SRUC is about.

Other members have discussed regionalisation, usually in a negative way. I suggest that they talk to Hugh Hall—I know that Willie Rennie has already met him and done that—who is the new principal of Fife College. He sees that regionalisation has allowed him to take the helm of a strong, strategic institution. It has its challenges, but regionalisation is seen by the college not as something that is holding it back but as something that can take it forward to a much stronger position.

As Willie Rennie rightly pointed out, following the transfer of Fife College’s offer at Elmwood to other campuses in the region, and concerns about the viability of the Elmwood campus, the Scottish funding council is supporting a curriculum review of north-east Fife. I will not go into the detail of the remit, as Willie Rennie has already put that on the record. The Scottish funding council appointed Rocket Science consultants at the end of February to take forward that work. As well as having a wide range of relevant experience, Rocket Science has a good knowledge of the area, having worked with Fife College in the past on its curriculum offer.

As well as speaking to SRUC and Fife College, the consultants are ensuring that they speak to key stakeholders in north-east Fife, including Fife Council, schools, employers, third sector groups and universities. A comprehensive set of the area’s existing data will also be interrogated as part of that work. That will include the Scottish index of multiple deprivation, labour market intelligence, skills investment plans and regional skills assessments; I give a commitment that transport issues will be considered in that process, too. The study is due to be completed in the first week of May. I look forward to it identifying a model for the area that works best for SRUC and Fife College, and, most important, for the region and the people of north-east Fife.

It is my understanding that SRUC is in the process of developing a new strategic plan, which will include a thorough review of its estates strategy. It is important that SRUC continues to have a dialogue with the Scottish funding council during that process. However, we have to recognise that SRUC, as a higher education institution, is an autonomous body—it is not a college—and therefore has responsibility for its own strategic decision making.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish ministers are ultimately unable to intervene in SRUC’s internal institutional matters, such as those that relate to estates—after all, we hold dear the autonomy of our higher education institutions—but we would expect that decisions that would have a wider impact on Fife would be made following full consultation with staff and students, and that consideration would always be given to minimising the impact on the student experience.

It is therefore encouraging that SRUC has stated that it has no plans to withdraw from the Elmwood campus and that it is actively recruiting students for the start of the 2017-18 academic year. Students will still have the opportunity to study on a wide range of exciting courses, many of which members have already mentioned. They include courses for gamekeeping, wildlife management, horticulture and a selection of excellent golf and greenkeeping-related qualifications.

In 2014, SRUC was designated as the national provider for land-based education, and the Scottish funding council asked it to take a lead on the development of a national strategy for land-based education and training for the whole of Scotland. That is a dynamic strategy, and SRUC has been proactive in identifying the current and future needs of the land-based industries. It works closely with its college and university partners to deliver a coherent land-based curriculum strategy for the sector that meets the needs of students, employers and the rural economy.

The local presence of SRUC and its geographical reach are vital components of the delivery of the national strategy. We fully recognise the overall contribution that it makes to the rural economy and the value that it brings to north-east Fife.

At a time when both SRUC and Fife College are taking stock of their estates and the provision that they offer, it is worth noting that both institutions are under relatively new leadership. Both have the right people at the helm to steer them through this challenging period. Professor Wayne Powell was appointed principal and chief executive of SRUC in July last year. He has already overseen an additional five new senior management and 10 new academic appointments, who add to the wealth of experience that there already is at SRUC.

It was announced recently that Sandy Cumming will take up the position of SRUC chairman in October. I have already mentioned Hugh Hall, who became principal and chief executive of Fife College on 1 March this year. Those men have proven track records at the forefront of further and higher education. We welcome them, and we look forward to their energy and vision benefiting not just SRUC and Fife College, but the people of north-east Fife as they find the right solution with stakeholders in the area.

Members have highlighted a variety of other points, which I will try to pick up on. Alex Rowley was quite right to point to the wealth of tourism opportunities in the Fife area. I am sorry that I missed him when he was at Fire Station Creative last night; I heard that the event went very well. However, there are other places for the citizen spire. It could perhaps be in the Dunfermline constituency, but we will leave that for another conversation.

Jenny Gilruth pointed to the importance of the Levenmouth rail link. I appreciate that that is one of the rail links in Fife that is being considered. The Minister for Transport and the Islands is encouraging all the campaign groups in the area to bring forward their business cases. Such investment would be a welcome development in Fife, and I know that the Minister for Transport and the Islands is very keen to ensure that all the community campaigns for rail links develop and bring forward their business cases.

On wider student issues, Mark Ruskell mentioned student support. He will no doubt be aware of the on-going student support review, which is looking at how we can have a system that benefits those in FE and HE and ensures that we value students in both.

On encouraging students from overseas, I gently say to Dean Lockhart that it would really help us if the UK Government could clarify the status of European Union nationals after Brexit and if it perhaps had an immigration policy that would allow us to bring more international students into the country. He has my full support on that. He made a very important point, and I hope that he makes it to the UK Government and his Conservative colleagues at the same time as he makes it to the Scottish Government.

Willie Rennie

Will the minister take an intervention?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Willie Rennie may make an intervention, although the minister is coming close to overtime.

Willie Rennie

I welcome what the minister has said, but can she address the point about timing? If we are going to have a format and viable option for the future and we want that to be in place for the 2018-19 academic year, we need decisions to be made quite soon.

Shirley-Anne Somerville

As the Presiding Officer has reminded me about my timing, I simply refer the member to what I have already said about SRUC’s commitment to encourage new students for this academic year.

I hope that members have been reassured about the Government’s continued support for further and higher education provision in north-east Fife. I am more than happy to continue to work with members and other local representatives to ensure that we find the right solution for the people in north-east Fife and that the economic realities that we want to bring to the area come to fruition with a very well-supported further education institution remaining in the area.

13:30 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—