HC Deb 15 December 1989 vol 163 cc877-9W
Mr. Buchanan-Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has now given consideration to the conclusions and recommendations of the report by the Williams committee into the future of the Scottish agricultural colleges; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Rifkind

Following receipt of the report of the Williams committee, I have listened carefully to the views of interested persons and organisations on it, and have given consideration to the report's conclusions and recommendations.

I welcome the report, and am very grateful to Sir Alwyn Williams and his colleagues on the committee for producing such a very carefully considered document to a tight timetable.

I agree with the central recommendations of the report that the three Scottish agricultural colleges and SAC Ltd should be merged into one corporate body comprising a single national college, which would retain the functions of education, R and D and advisory services, under the management of a single board of directors and an executive director. I would at the same time confirm the Government's long-term commitment to the retention of the existing college centres across Scotland at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Auchencruive.

I believe that detailed questions of management structure and location of facilities should be for the new board of directors to consider in the first instance, including the question of the most appropriate location for the headquarters. But I believe that the name should be the Scottish agricultural college. I also consider it important that there should be some form of local body, deriving its authority from the new board, based on each campus and responsible for maintaining links with the local community. I wish to see the role of executive director separated from that of campus principal.

I agree that the new national Scottish agricultural college should continue to occupy the middle tier of agricultural education in Scotland, but that there should be a shift in the nature of the provision towards higher education. With the exception of certain specialist courses, non-advanced further education provision should be phased out over a period of time yet to be determined. Advanced-level education should continue to be provided.

As for schools of agriculture, I am not minded to accept the Williams recommendation that these should cease to exist. While some restructuring of the relationship between the present colleges and their neighbouring universities will be an inevitable consequence of the establishment of a single national college, I attach the greatest importance to allowing the strong academic links and the productive sharing of resources established between colleges and universities to continue both now and in the long term. I would therefore in particular wish to see the concept and title "School of Agriculture" carry on at both Aberdeen and Edinburgh provided that the school was in future headed jointly by its respective campus principal and by a professor at the university. I expect the Scottish committee of the UFC to offer me advice on the balance of provision in agricultural education between the college and the universities, recognising that the universities' main strength lies in the sciences and that of the college in technological and vocational subjects.

I agree that the Government should continue to support research and development in the new college, alongside applied and near-market work funded by industry and other bodies. This support will include funding of policy-related work and some strategic research. I attach considerable importance to the new college improving the management of its research programmes through central direction.

I agree that the new college should continue to provide advisory services, and that there should be a clear statement by my Department of the work to be funded by Government. I particularly welcome the recommendation that the new college should be encouraged to expand the range of services that it can offer to facilitate rural prosperity, although it should not seek to offer a fully comprehensive service to the whole of rural society: it will be essential for other agencies and bodies to continue to provide services appropriate to their remits. I accept that the new college should offer a "gateway" service, so that through the development and maintenance of close contact with other agencies, the knowledge acquired can be used to guide farmers and other interests to the appropriate organisation for advice, grant aid and other services. Further detailed consideration of how such a service could be provided will require discussion with my Department and other interests.

I have noted the recommendations related to the veterinary investigation service. These will require further consideration and I will return to them at a later date.

I believe it is important, in the interests of the staff, students, and users of services, that my Department, the board of SAC Ltd. and the governing bodies of the three colleges should move rapidly towards early implementation of the main recommendations. I know that the present board shares my view that I should make an early announcement of a part-time chairman for the new board. I will be looking thereafter to the early appointment of the directors of the board and the executive director. Arrangements for future appointments will be discussed with the new board.

I wish to record my very considerable appreciation to the chairman of SAC Ltd., Mr. Watson Peat, the chairmen of the college governing bodies, Mr. Barbour, Mr. Ferguson and Mr. Lennox, the members of the governing bodies, the senior management of SAC Ltd. and the colleges, as well as all their staff for the way they have responded so positively to the changes initiated by Government policies over the last five years. I believe that the changes which I have announced today will provide a stable structure for improving on that record of achievement into the next century.

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