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Nolan bandwagon hoist by own remit

The Nolan sisters and brothers rolled into Scotland this week to take evidence from colleges, universities, local authorities and other public spending bodies.

But Lord Nolan, who chairs the committee on standards in public life, was thrown momentarily off course by the opening witnesses from the Association of Scottish Colleges. John Sellars, Ray Baker and Mike Webster are English born to a man, and Lord Nolan observed that "FE in Scotland is funded and regulated by the Foreign Office . . . I'm sorry, the Scottish Office." Perhaps the colleges, too, are sorry it is the Scottish Office.

It was a rare light moment in a soporific couple of days. Indeed, Lord Nolan seized upon an apologetic indication from Rae Angus, principal of Aberdeen College, that he was about to add some levity with an eager "please do".

The committee is, of course, hoist by its own remit. An inquiry into conflicts of interest on quangos, the good governance of further education and higher education, remuneration for board members, the accountability of governing bodies is not a laugh a minute affair.

Even the trumpet of the leaders of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, no slouches at raising the temperature in such matters, went off at less than full blast. Rosemary McKenna, Cosla's president, purred rather than raged over the word "draconian".

The evidence from all sides, of course, was that the management of FE and HE in Scotland needs no lessons in improvement. Langside and Aberdeen colleges even boast a code of ethics for board members. There was particular interest, however, in the responses from Aberdeen College and Robert Gordon University to suggestions that "whistle-blowing" staff might be victimised if they spoke out.

Relationships with staff are "very good", according to David Kennedy, principal of Robert Gordon, currently being taken to court by the Educational Institute of Scotland over new staff contracts.

And Rae Angus of Aberdeen College, in the aforementioned touch of levity, said staff representatives were so unafraid that he had been asked who paid the bill when he took representatives from other colleges out for a meal. That was open government.

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