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.

Planning for place: bringing together community planning and spatial planning

Everyone knows that where you live has a major impact on your life chances, and that disadvantage is concentrated in particular geographies.

Charles Booth’s famous poverty maps of London were prepared in 1889. In Scotland, we’ve had decades of high quality research by places like the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) into the impact that Glasgow’s industrial heritage and clusters of poverty and deprivation have on peoples’ health and life chances.

This is important information, affecting individuals and communities day in and day out across Scotland. Tackling the root causes of what drives these cycles of deprivation and poor outcomes is one of the country’s most pressing problems if it wants to create a fair and just society.

That’s why the Improvement Service ran a recent conference exploring the links between community planning – public bodies working with communities to improve their local area – and spatial planning, which has traditionally been about buildings and infrastructure. The conclusion from the event was that while these two activities have lots in common they’ve traditionally worked quite separately from each other.

nr_160303_community_planningAs budgets reduce that’s just not sustainable, and in the context of the Community Empowerment legislation, local people need to have more of a say in how their area should be developed and improved. We echoed that message in our third update report on Community Planning in Scotland, recommending that the Scottish Government and CPPs ensure communities are given a strong voice in planning local services.

David Martin, Chief Executive of Dundee City Council, and Colin Mair, Chief Executive of the Improvement Service, didn’t shy away from challenging planners of every stripe to really push the envelope and be ambitious in working together to address shared concerns around Jobs, Community Safety, Health and Well-being.

For me, it was a lightbulb moment. Obviously councils need local development plans. They also need a Single Outcome Agreement and locality plans, plus lots of other plans and strategies but streamlining and aligning activity has to make sense. So does making better use of the shared intelligence that community planners and spatial planners have about the needs and concerns of local communities.

Some places, like East Ayrshire already do this. They use their Community Plan as the sovereign document which drives everything that they do (including their work with partners). But for many at the conference there was a sense that this is a journey that they’ve yet to really embark on.

It won’t be easy. Community planning and spatial planning operate under different and at times potentially contradictory legislation and they have different cultures and perspectives. But, what was exciting was the strong commitment to try and work through those challenges to focus on what really matters, improving the lives of local people, and reducing inequalities.

About the author

aclarkAntony Clark, Assistant Director, held a variety of public sector posts in England before joining Audit Scotland in 2003. Since then he’s developed the Accounts Commission’s Best Value 2 audit approach in local government, led on Audit Scotland’s work on community planning and managed a national programme of Best Value audits in fire and rescue. Continue reading Planning for place: bringing together community planning and spatial planning

Playing our part in the changing landscape of Scotland’s public finances

There’s no doubt that this is a busy and exciting time for anyone with an interest in Scotland’s political and financial landscape. Generating a lot of discussion is the Scotland Bill 2015, set to grant further financial powers to the Scottish Parliament and establish a new fiscal framework which could substantially revise its budgetary and funding arrangements. All of this is taking place while new financial powers in the Scotland Act 2012 are being implemented.

A number of Scottish and UK parliamentary committees have taken an interest in the development of new financial powers. Audit Scotland also has key role to play in this fast changing area of public finances, and we’ve been one of many public bodies asked to give views to Parliament on this important area.

We set out initial views on the audit arrangements for any new financial powers in a submission to the Public Audit Committee in August 2015, and I gave evidence on behalf of Audit Scotland to the Finance Committee’s inquiry on the Scottish Fiscal Commission Bill. The Commission plays a vital scrutiny role by providing independent assessments of forecasts of tax revenues, and its remit is likely to grow with further financial devolution.

We’ve also looked closely at how implementation of the Scotland Act 2012 has been prepared for, and managed; we first reported on progress in December 2014, and we’ve recently published a follow-up to this work, available here.

Our latest update explained how Revenue Scotland – the body responsible for the administration of the newly devolved Land and Buildings Transaction Tax and the Scottish Landfill Tax – effectively managed risks to make sure they were delivered successfully from April last year. In short, a good news story, though there’s still a lot of work ahead.

We also reported that some arrangements to manage the powers in the Act (and potentially the Scotland Bill 2015) beyond this year are still being developed, which is reasonable. However, we’ve highlighted the need for the Scottish Government to be able to move quickly once key agreements are reached, so it can be in a position to manage the new powers well and deliver financial reporting that’s comprehensive, transparent, reliable and timely.

On Wednesday (27 January), I’ll join the Auditor General and colleagues to discuss our findings with MSPs on the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee. The session will be broadcast live on Parliament TV.

MSPs will also hear from the Auditor General on other interesting new work which has seen Audit Scotland provide assurance to Parliament on an audit of the Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT). We reviewed the National Audit Office’s first annual audit of HMRC’s implementation of the SRIT, which comes into force in April 2016. The Auditor General will report annually to the audit committee on the NAO’s work in this area, and it’s provided a great opportunity for us to work with another UK audit body.

Public audit provides assurance that public money is well managed. This is important for the public and decision-makers, and will become even more relevant as Scotland takes on further financial powers. For Audit Scotland, it means that the scope of our work will likely become more wide-ranging and diverse.

About the author

MarkTaylor Mark Taylor is an Assistant Director in Audit Scotland. He oversees a wide portfolio of central government audits, including the Scottish Government audit.

Monitoring the progress of health and social care integration

Big changes are bringing together health and social care services in Scotland.

Traditionally, the NHS has provided health services and councils have provided social care. The new reforms will see these services planned and resourced by one local organisation, intended to create a seamless system which gives people the care they need, at the right time and place.

All adult social care and some health services including GPs, community healthcare, and certain hospital services (those which are mainly unplanned, such as A&E) are covered by the reforms. This makes the potential impact of integration wide reaching, as it involves services relied on by many. And as a country, we’re getting older, which means it’s likely the number of people needing health and social care services will increase in the years to come.

H&SCI_CoverIn early December, we published the first in a series of audits that we’ll undertake to monitor progress with the reforms. We found that the new arrangements are likely to be in place across Scotland by April 2016, but there’s more work to do to ensure that people using services feel the benefit of the changes.

We also found some evidence to suggest that local areas might not be in a position to make a huge difference in 2016/17. There are difficulties agreeing how much money councils and NHS boards will bring together to provide integrated services.  This, combined with uncertainty about much funding will be available in the longer term, means some local areas don’t have clear plans for how and when services will change.

If integration is going to make a real difference to people who use health and social care services, it’s important that all local areas make detailed plans for how they’ll make the necessary changes. It’s also important to be clear how they will measure the impact of these changes.

We found other issues that need resolved if the reforms are to be successful. For example, the new system is complicated, and it’ll be important that each local area makes clear, to both staff and the public, who is responsible for the health and social care provided.

There are also issues relating to available staff in health and social care. These include considering how this workforce can best contribute to changes to the services provided and how to recruit people into jobs where there are shortages of suitably skilled staff.

Like the different bodies involved in integration, Audit Scotland recognises the importance of getting this right and the consequences if that doesn’t happen, and we’ve made detailed recommendations to support improvement in our report to the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General. We’ll begin the next audit looking at the further progress of integration in early 2017.

In the meantime, we’re discussing our findings and recommendations with members of the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee on Wednesday (13 January). You can view the agenda, and watch the meeting live, via the Parliament’s website.

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.