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Are we entering the Twilight Zone on college funding?

It is not unusual for Scots to enter a new year with a feeling of ambivalence. Even schizophrenia. A combined sense of achievement and melancholy, a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Hugh MacDiarmid referred to it as the Scottish antisyzygy, more recently Tom Nairn called it the Janus complex. I call it the Twilight Zone.

One thing is certain - the Scottish FE Twilight Zone is full of mists and uncertainties. In the first instance we are still not sure we are operating in a sector or in a market-place. There is no doubt that the past nine months has seen an upsurge of genuine co-operation and collaboration between colleges. There is even talk of mergers in the air.

Next month, however, will see the annual fashion parade of aggressive college marketing initiatives, including glossy prospectuses, radio, television and the relentless advertising of courses. The sector spends some Pounds 1.9 million a year on publicity. This part of the Twilight Zone is equivalent to about 70 lecturers.

Our funding prospects are equally uncertain. With just two months until the new financial year we still don't know how much funds are available to the sector. For a short time it looked quite good. Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State, presented his spending plans to the Scottish Grand Committee and announced an additional Pounds 8 million for FE as part of the Pounds 141 million "three-point package for educational investment".

The Association of Scottish Colleges has subsequently suggested that as a result of a revised approach to presenting the figures the increase "conceals" a loss of Pounds 3.9 million in fees. Whoever is right, it would appear that the Twilight Zone strikes again.

For individual colleges the position is equally uncertain. We do not know how the budgets will be allocated. The recent review group report into the funding model has apparently generated mixed responses from those colleges which responded to the consultation.

I would guess that a high expression of self-interest will be discernible even in these times of ethical principles in public life. Although my own college would benefit greatly from an early implementation of the proposals, we argued against this in order to put the interests of the whole sector first. Such integrity and selflessness would, if replicated, lessen the impact of the Twilight Zone on the funding arrangements for the sector. There is, I suggest, little cause for confidence.

New Labour's proposed comprehensive spending review is surely a more appropriate context in which to introduce a new model of funding. The service would be more effective - indeed comprehensive - if the commitment to set up a strategic framework took meaningful account of the views of colleges and their staffs as well as the nation's skill needs and the Government's priorities for access, quality improvement and redressing social exclusion. The required policy coherence cannot take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty. It cannot emerge from the Twilight Zone.

The curricular changes we face are equally misted. There is little question that college principals and their staff will willingly deliver the Higher Still curriculum in partnership with local authorities and schools. We have so far conceded less flexible approaches to assessment. Yet we are still not clear about either parity of esteem between internal and external assessment or our role in providing Advanced Higher awards.

Nor is it obvious how core skills will be embedded into courses without wholesale adjustments to our staff structures - a new breed of core skills specialist teams? - or our access policies.

Likewise, we fully expect to be key players in the New Deal, the National Learning Grid and the nation's mission for lifelong learning. In entering the FE Twilight Zone we accept that our participation in these initiatives may change colleges beyond all recognition. This is the ultimate ambivalence.

Earlier this month I thought seriously about the future of my Educational Institute of Scotland membership. The EIS and the National Union of Teachers appeared to jointly endorse the findings of their consultants from Coopers Lybrand and support a transfer of funds out of FE. How could this be possible? Only a month earlier the EIS's College Lecturers' Association had, in a spirit of collaboration, approached the ASC to establish a joint lobbying strategy on funding. It had also displayed great common sense in agreeing a protocol with the other FE trade union the main aim of which was to seek a better deal for FE.

I decided against resigning. After all the EISCLA is no different from the rest of further education - it too exists in the Twilight Zone.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College Glasgow. He writes in a personal capacity.

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