Auditing Scotland’s further and higher education sectors: The story so far…

Scotland’s universities and colleges deliver a wide range of benefits to individuals and communities, and so most of us will have an interest in how they are performing, particularly in this time of significant change and uncertainty for the country’s public finances.

On Thursday, the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post-legislative Scrutiny Committee hears from Auditor General Caroline Gardner and Audit Scotland teams – myself included – on reports we’ve recently published on the higher education and college sectors. Members will also hear from the Auditor General on challenges facing Edinburgh College, and Glasgow Colleges’ Regional Board.

cover800x1132I was part of the team taking Audit Scotland’s first look at the entire higher education sector, which attracts a growing number of students and is internationally renowned. More than 50,000 students from outside the UK came to Scotland to study in 2014/15, and almost all Scottish universities deliver higher education abroad, either by running overseas campuses, through partnerships with other universities, or through distance learning.

In 2014/15, the Scottish Government provided over £1.7bn in funding, made up of direct funding to universities and financial support to individual students, such as paying tuition fees and funding student loans. Our report raises important issues about the use of public funding, and the challenges facing both universities and the Scottish Government if the sector is to stay successful, and if the Scottish Government’s policy ambitions are to be achieved.

For example, one of our key findings is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Scottish students to get a university place in Scotland. There’s a need for greater understanding of trends in applications, offer rates, and acceptances to assess what impact Scottish Government policies are having on access to university for Scottish and EU students. This is one of several recommendations we make in our report, touching on areas such as student support, widening access and the role of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)

The review of higher education was followed by Audit Scotland’s annual look at the performance of Scotland’s colleges. This piece of work was managed by my colleague Stuart Nugent. You can listenas_cover_colleges to Stuart discuss the key findings of that report here. Though colleges and universities are very different bodies in a number of ways, both sectors face challenges. In the case of colleges, substantial reforms have transformed the way that they operate and deliver services.

Our latest review of the college sector found that it is financially stable and achieving learning targets, whilst still adjusting to the big changes it’s experienced in recent years. However, several issues remain outstanding if the full effects of government reforms are to be understood and addressed by the sector.

Like universities, the college sector is experiencing changes within its student population – though for different reasons – such as growing numbers of under-25s in full-time education and reductions in women and over-25s. Our report states that the Scottish Government, the SFC and colleges need to work together to improve their understanding of demand for courses across the country, and create long-term plans for how they will commit finances and staff to meet future need.

Both of these reports have generated a lot of ongoing debate about the future challenges facing the respective sectors, and how to manage them. The Scottish Government and SFC have responded to both reports ahead of Thursday’s meeting and once we present our findings to the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny Committee, members will then decide what action they would like to take to continue their scrutiny of the sectors.

For our part, the audit teams will continue to explore ways to engage with stakeholders on our recommendations and share the knowledge we’ve gained through our work. For example, I’ve been travelling round the country since July, presenting our findings at universities and sector events and it’s been really interesting to hear the range of views on what approach should be taken to deal with the challenges ahead.

We’ll use this feedback to consider how we can focus our future audit work on education, and will post updates on our website as that starts to take shape.

About the author

kwsmallKirsty Whyte managed our audit of higher education in Scottish universities. She has worked at Audit Scotland for over 12 years undertaking performance audits on a wide range of topics across the whole of the public sector, including school education, the use of locum doctors in the NHS, and efforts to reduce reoffending.

Exploring early learning and childcare: Have your say

Audit Scotland looks at public spending and policy across the whole of the public sector, meaning there’s a huge number of areas we can potentially explore.

Right now we’re considering an audit on Early Learning and Childcare (ELCC) in Scotland. These services have recently been changed and face further reform in the future, so this feels like the right time to take a closer look at how the system is working, and what outcomes are being delivered for the people who access this support.

We haven’t explored these services in detail before, and we want to make sure we’re on the right track when we start planning our audit work. So, we’re looking for parents and carers of children eligible for funded early learning and childcare services (usually three to four-year-olds, and some two-year-olds) to share their views and experiences with us, in a brief new survey.

We’re particularly interested in exploring how public money is spent on ELCC, and what the impact has been on children, and their parents and carers, from the recent changes to the system.

Icon_A_B_AS-04These changes include:

  • An increase in the number of funded hours available for three and four year olds from 475 to 600 hours a year;
  • Provision of funded places for some two year olds;
  • An increase in the flexibility of the services, such as offering places with different hours or in different settings, dependent on local need

These are the areas we’re primarily interested in, but we also want parents and carers to let us know if there are other aspects of ELCC they think we should look at when we begin our work.

By telling us about their experiences and what areas they think we should be focusing on, they can play an important role in helping to make sure public money is spent properly, and creates positive outcomes for the people who rely on vital services like ELCC.

So if you’re a parent or carer of an eligible child (or children!), please spare a few minutes to help us build a picture of what’s happening across the country, what’s important to you and your family, and the kinds of issues we should cover in our work.

We’ll run the survey until the end of August and post further updates here and on our website as our audit starts to take shape. Why not sign up to our newsletter when you complete the survey, so we can send updates straight to your inbox?

About the author

MM6A5569Rebecca Smallwood is an auditor and joined Audit Scotland in 2008. She has worked on a number of audits with a health and social care focus, including community health partnerships, emergency departments and reshaping care for older people.

Auditing Best Value in Falkirk Council

AS_Twitter_Exhibit_COVERI was part of the team which carried out the audit of Best Value in Falkirk Council on behalf of the  Accounts Commission, the public spending watchdog for local government.

Our extensive audit work included interviewing councillors and senior officers. We held focus groups with councillors so they all had an opportunity to contribute their views on what was happening. Staff were also invited to take part in a focus group to help us understand how certain issues  affected their work, and how services were being delivered to the people of Falkirk. Continue reading Auditing Best Value in Falkirk Council

Exploring higher education…

College_jotter_smScotland has 19 higher education institutions, ranging from ancient universities like St Andrews to those established in the last 25 years. Some have a very specific focus, such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. What they all have in common is providing a massive range of opportunities for learning and research.

I’m currently working with a small team on an audit of higher education in Scotland. Although we did an audit of estates management in higher education in 2007, taking a broader overview of the higher education is an interesting new area for Audit Scotland. Continue reading Exploring higher education…