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The bottom line is what's best for the learners

Day-to-day trouble-shooting, long-term planning options or hard budget choices . . . it often helps to disentangle an issue if you start with the obvious question: what outcome would be best for learners?

It's a useful tool in supporting your own decisions and in evaluating other people's. For example, we know that there is to be a major strategic change in our sector: the merger of the FE and HE funding councils. This was presented in the consultation document as a logical next step in establishing "a more integrated view of lifelong learning".

But it's by no means the only way things might have gone. Colleges have close connections with schools (as the Scottish Executive is keen to point out at the moment), with the training and skills sector and with community learning. Other regimes have chosen to reflect one or more of these relationships in their funding structures, rather than to bring colleges closer to higher education institutions (HEIs).

Scotland, though, has decided that the best way forward is to create a structural link between the college sector and the HEIs, by merging the funding councils. As I write, the Bill is awaiting royal assent. Is this a good outcome for learners and potential learners? I think that depends on what we do with the opportunity before us. We should be working now to ensure that the answer is an unequivocal "yes".

Most colleges already have their own bilateral partnerships with HEIs, and many have been developing wider collaborative working through the regional wider access forums. I have also had the privilege of co-chairing one of the joint committees of the FE and HE funding councils, the learning and teaching committee. For me, these stimulating and challenging experiences have highlighted the extent of the common commitment to the quality of the learning experiences we provide; the wide range of expertise and insight we can gain from each other; the profound differences in our histories, vocabularies, styles and ways of working; and the importance of maintaining and valuing our diversity. Both sectors need to consider how to build on this kind of collaboration.

On the learning and teaching committee, we have had discussions about what we all mean by a "learner-centred approach" and how this can be put into practice. We have explored common themes, including employability, widening access, the question of how best to drive quality enhancement, effective learner participation and representation - and we have learnt a great deal together, by listening to each other's perspectives and through joint investigation of shared areas of interest.

It hasn't always been easy. We have had to get to know each other and to understand and respect each other's agendas and cultures. We have tried to keep open minds, play to the strengths of both sectors, and "aim further and higher" rather than going for the lowest common denominator. Now, we're excited about the future and about what a genuinely "joint" committee can contribute to the thinking of the new council. There are still separate working groups on FE and HE matters and I think there always will and should be - but the list of areas we want to develop together keeps on growing.

The debate about the technicalities of the merger legislation is over and the issues about terminology, academic freedom and so on have been concluded. The new council will have a statutory skills committee as well as a research committee. That's good, but rather than sitting back with a sigh of relief, we should return our focus to learners and learning. Let's devote some energy and attention to considering how the strengthened partnership between our sectors can really make a difference.

As the Association of Scottish Colleges stated in its response to the consultation on the merger, the key test is whether the proposed changes will improve quality of learning and teaching, range of choice and volume of opportunity for students, employers and communities. The commitment to merging the councils, as set out in Life through learning: learning through life in February 2003, emphasised that it would "make possible greater comparability and transparency in the way the different types of institution and levels of courses are funded in tertiary education".

How funding issues are taken forward will be a crucial part of the debate - but only a part. If we keep the focus on the right questions, the merger of the councils has many other potential benefits in areas such as guidance and choice, access and progression, the design of learning environments and, above all, the quality and value of each learner's experience.

Ros Micklem is principal of Cardonald College.

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