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Henry Mcleish

The former first minister discusses his new role in further education as chair of City of Glasgow College and his continuing commitment to securing a future for Scottish football. Interview by Julia Belgutay

The former first minister discusses his new role in further education as chair of City of Glasgow College and his continuing commitment to securing a future for Scottish football. Interview by Julia Belgutay

When people ask you these days what you do for a living, what do you say?

It is about serving the nation. I was an elected public servant for 30 years, and I now play an active role in trying to secure the role of Scottish football. I am actively involved in broadcasting and writing about politics - especially the future of Scotland. I am chair of City of Glasgow College, I chair the National Mining Museum Scotland, and I do some consultancy work as well. I remain, unfortunately, a workaholic.

How did you come to be chair of the board at City of Glasgow College?

It was sold to me as an enormous challenge, and it is. I have a particular affection for Glasgow; it's a city with an incredible history and I hope it's going to be a city with an incredible future. City of Glasgow College, along with the other colleges, will play an important part in that.

Would you like to see one regional Glasgow college?

I know at the end of all of this, the minister wants to see 12 clusters of colleges. I support that idea. Second, I support the idea of an integrated Glasgow city region. It is fairly well circumscribed, it has a major city council, major other agencies, and it would seem to me sensible initially to work in partnership, with a view to seeing where that takes us in the future.

Do you understand why some principals might feel bitter about City of Glasgow College's role in the regionalisation process, in the sense that its merger was very well funded?

The minister has agreed that there will be extra funding available for transformation. I would hope they would see that our merger was an opportunity for three colleges to come together. It has been very successful, there are significant savings to be made, the culture of learning has been continued, and of course we now have the actuality of pound;200m being spent on the new campus. I would like all Glasgow principals and chairs to lift their horizons.

Can Michael Russell deliver his promise of maintaining student numbers in colleges?

That is a tough ask. The minister knows that there is scope for efficiency savings, but on the other hand, 100,000 young Scots between 16 and 24 not in work, education or training is a major challenge that can't be tackled without cash in the college sector. Secondly, to retain student numbers we have to make sure we provide quality education. Thirdly, what is crucial is the staff. Staff are valuable.

Do you think the FE sector needs to be represented by Scotland's Colleges?

Put it this way, Scotland's individual colleges need a voice. The universities have been far more successful in doing that and that has resulted, for example, in a financial settlement this year far better than ours. I think part of that is about the perception of government and MSPs that we are not yet fit for purpose. On the other hand, I think we can be very critical, as I am, of Scotland's Colleges - but it can only be as good, as important and as effective as the colleges want it to be.

Is Scotland's Colleges value for money?

Currently it's not. But it's a challenge to all of us. Scotland's Colleges is our problem, not everyone else's. In this world, we do need a voice. That can be Scotland's Colleges, but in the absence of that, we do need something.

Could the Scottish Funding Council be abolished without harm to universities and colleges?

I think there is a funding role for it, but on the other hand it has to act as more than just a post-box. We also have to have some assessment of what constitutes a good, effective, value-for-money college in the 21st century. There should also be incentivisation in the system, so that the very good colleges get rewards.

Do you agree that there should be no graduate contribution?

I do at this stage. I would like Scotland's higher education to be the very best it can be. I think Scotland should have a bigger aspiration than England. That could well mean that in the future, sustainability becomes a crucial issue. But currently, I think it's working. Student numbers are reasonable just now, but there is going to be enormous pressure. My plea is, let's consider the enormous pressures and look at the policy in that context - but currently I support it.

Last year, you carried out a review of Scottish football. Do you think school football is finally recovering from the setback of the teacher strikes in the 1980s?

No. I don't blame the teachers - they had a legitimate grievance with the Thatcher government at that point. But it's at that point that the whole question of PE in school, football and coaching started to decline. Coming up to the present time, it is a national scandal that we cannot have two hours of PE in every school in the country, especially when there is so much obesity, so many unfit kids. I want to see every school estate in Scotland opened up seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, for sport. Fitness, health and well-being and confidence-building for children are absolutely crucial to our future, but they are not yet being taken seriously enough by those in education.

Personal profile

Born: Methil, 1948

Education: Kennoway Primary; Buckhaven High; urban planning degree at Heriot-Watt University

Career: Professional football player; lecturer at Heriot-Watt University; leader of Fife Regional Council; Labour MP for Central Fife until 2001; helped Donald Dewar secure the Scotland Act at Westminster; MSP for Central Fife 1999-2003; Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, 1999-2000; First Minister, 2000-01.

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