Qualifications body under fire for Saudi Arabia links

Concerns raised in Parliament over work of Scottish Qualifications Authority in countries with poor human rights records

SQA under fire: The Scottish Qualifications Authority has come under attack for its work in Saudi Arabia - a country with a questionable human rights record

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has today come under intense scrutiny over the human rights records of some of the countries where it operates.

The SQA does international work in more than 20 countries, and today faced questions in the Scottish Parliament over its decision to operate in authoritarian regimes.

Green MSP Ross Greer, speaking at a meeting of the Education and Skills Committee, homed in on training provided in Saudi Arabia, where the SQA has been a partner of the National Company for Training and Education Technologies (Tetec) in a programme to train all  government employees in IT skills by 2020.


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Mr Greer said: "My understanding is that 44,000 employees of the Saudi government are going through this training.

"In October 2016, before you signed that contract, the Saudi regime bombed a funeral in Sana'a [in Yemen], and they killed 155 people."

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Mr Greer said that "this was a war crime, committed before you entered into a contract with the Saudi Arabian government – at any point since you entered into that contract, have you re-evaluated your relationship with them?"

As John McMorris, SQA's director of business development, started to answer, Mr Green then interjected to ask: "Have you done any assessment of what those [government] employees are doing?"

Mr McMorris replied: "No."

When Mr Greer asked why not, Mr McMorris added that "the candidate entries are very low and we haven't as yet certificated any candidates, so it's going through the quality-assurance process".

Mr Greer said: "You've been doing this for years. You started doing it after they started committing war crimes, you're doing it for their ministry of defence, you're training the employees, they are killing children, you are an education authority of the Scottish government – why have you not checked that?"

Mr McMorris replied: "All of our work that we do internationally, we have always received the latest advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of our assessments.

"We are committed to improving outcomes for learners, and, as I've said, the aims of that particular project, with that private organisation, Tetec, is to help female participation in the labour market."

Mr Greer said: "I don't consider that an adequate answer; that you're focused on the outcome for the learner.

"You're providing training for employees of a government. That means [a] line of responsibility from that government's actions to yourselves.

"You're saying that you have not checked what those employees are doing; what they're doing with the training you provide. Why not?"

Mr McMorris said that "these are very low-level entry qualifications to help people that have been unemployed".

He added: "If there are human rights concerns, it doesn't necessarily mean that you wouldn't engage in that particular country."

Mr Greer reminded the committee that the Scottish government decided not to go ahead with a trade mission to Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia in October 2018.

He described it as "completely inappropriate" that the SQA was not similarly reviewing its operations in Saudi Arabia, adding: "It does not appear that you conduct anything like the appropriate human rights checks for entering into, or during, any of your international contract work, and that is not acceptable for a Scottish public body."

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson, who was appointed to the post earlier this year, also responded to Mr Greer at the committee, saying that "the processes and procedures that we take forward are very much in line with other public bodies, and we do as much due diligence as possible, but we're happy to provide further information".

However, she advised that, with a private provider, there were "constraints in how much we can do to provide further oversight".

Labour MSP and committee deputy convener Daniel Johnson said the position that human-rights concerns would not necessarily prevent SQA from operating in a country seemed "strange".

Ms Robertson replied: "Cultural and education exchange are a force for good. There's something here about the role of Scottish education being that force for good.

"I absolutely acknowledge the committee's concerns about human rights issues, and, of course, we would share those concerns."

She added: "We obviously do keep our contracts under review."

The SQA had been doing work overseas for 30 years, said Ms Robertson.

In a statement released later in the day, an SQA spokesman said: “SQA is not training government officials in Saudi Arabia. We do not recognise the 44,000 figure used in [a Scottish Greens] press release.

"Tetec is a privately-owned training provider in Saudi Arabia. It works with a number of international awarding bodies including SQA. Tetec is accredited by SQA, to Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Scottish Government guidance, to deliver a short, customised entry-level IT skills course, which helps to increase youth and female economic mobility. So far, the private training provider has not put forward one single candidate for certification."

The spokesman added: “SQA strongly opposes all forms of human rights abuse and unlawful discrimination. We strongly support equal opportunities in employment, education and training.

“Education is a positive force for change in influencing wider society, as well as the lives and economic mobility of learners. Our international activity promotes Scottish values."

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