If you watch much Scottish politics, you’ll be used to the more relaxed and considerate mood of debate in the Holyrood chamber.
Though Scottish university minister Richard Lochhead brought two aides (virtually) to the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, the mood of the debate was very different. We started with an update on the plans for Scotland (and Wales) to re-affiliate to Erasmus+ – where it emerged that not only did the Westminister government take the whole UK out of the scheme at literally the last possible moment, it had also forbidden either nation from participating under their own steam.
You’ll have spotted a fairly prominent attempt to get into Erasmus via the back door over the last week – there have been discussions with the European Commission, and a letter of support has been signed by 150 MEPs and counting. But Lochhead suggested that this would not be enough – a ban on participation had been instigated, with the official reasoning being linked to a Treasury assessment of poor value for money.
Where is this assessment? What assumptions have been made? What account has been taken of cultural as well as financial benefits? These are all fair questions – neither Lochhead nor anyone else have had answers. On formal relationships with the Westminster machine, he was fairly positive about conversations with DfE and ministers, but noted that decisions were often overruled by the Home Office or Treasury.
Turing, it seems, wasn’t going to cut the mustard in Scotland. It is, of course, not a formal exchange programme (in that it only funds UK students experiencing study abroad, not the return leg) – it also would not be available within the adult learning or youth work sectors, an area where Scotland has made a lot of use of the programme in previous years.
Lochhead, very perceptively, suspects that the Westminster Government may see Erasmus+ as symbolic – too European – and deliberately wanted to contrast that with a more internationally focused (and markedly cheaper) Turing. We’ll hear more about Turing next week, we understand, but there is only one year of funding confirmed so far.
We then reached what I like to think of as the comedy segment of the hearing, with questions from MP for Moray Douglas Ross. As Lochhead noted at one point “it’s difficult to keep track of the number of headlines you are trying to get”.
Ross comes on like Ben Shapiro without the sense of shame. He had one aim, and this was to make cheap debating society style points at the expense of Lochhead, the SNP, and the concept of devolved government. His first questions concerned whether Lochhead was able to remember the job titles of his aides (Roddy Macdonald, Head of Higher Education and Science at the Scottish Government, Lauren McNamara, Director of Strategy and Operations at the Student Awards Agency Scotland) without getting them to confirm them. Seriously.
A promising series of questions about financial support for providers – which noted the recent £10m to cover rent refunds, a contribution to a sector commitment worth £32.5m – had earlier descended quickly into an attempt to trap Lochhead into saying he would never accept financial support from the UK government for providers in Scotland. He elegantly dodged that question, but Ross was there to take him over the same ground again with added whining.
We also learned that “Scotland has two governments, whether or not the SNP likes it” in response to a suggestion that all nations should maybe have a say in the design of the Shared Prosperity Fund.
But the capstone was a scarcely believable line of questioning that Lochhead should have used mass asymptomatic testing in September when students returned to campus. Using the Lateral Flow tests that rolled out in November. All Ross could get from that was a repeat of an apology to students for the problems faced early last term, and another reminder about the student support that the Scottish Government had already put in place (proportionally far more than in England).