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Colleges in a global market

The theme of this year's conference organised by Perth College and The TES Scotland (page 20) was the global college. That conjures up visions of a future that at one time would have been ascribed to H G Wells and is now assumed to lie with the spread of the Internet. Just as the more extravagant claims for the Net are unlikely to be realised, so the notion of colleges with a remit encompassing the globe is not on the cards in the foreseeable future.

But it was salutary for the conference, which took place at Scone Palace, scene of early medieval coronations, to consider the changes in further (and higher) education wrought by technology. Until quite recently FE looked only to its neighbourhood community. It served local industries by training their future manpower. Few students travelled far, and the college did not have to consider events beyond its catchment area. It looked to its local authority to agree its courses, do its sums and give bursaries to its students.

In the entrepreneurial climate dictated by incorporation, narrowness of vision would rapidly spell disaster. That is why college principals are anxious to learn what is going on in other parts of the wood, including the thicket represented by the Brussels bureaucracy. They may have been distressed to hear again at Perth that their computers are out of date at least every five years and that other European countries are ready to set up training courses in English if our providers let the market slip. But they are anxious to share information and experience.

For example, there was interest in and maybe alarm about Sir Geoffrey Holland's support for customer guarantees to students not just because, as a former permanent secretary for both employment and education as well as a serving university vice-chancellor, he knows which way the wind is blowing. Sir Geoffrey cited the example of North Tyneside College which pledges to repay examination fees to any student attending at least 90 per cent of a course but failing to gain a qualification.

Despite the implications of technology for teaching, learning and saving on staff costs, all the speakers agreed that the global college must not subordinate education to machines, however intelligent. The Open University, whose Scottish director, John Cowan, was among the speakers, pioneered distance learning, but it is not ineluctably wedded to every new gismo. Professor Cowan said that lending far-flung students a fax machine was more efficient than equipping them with a modem.

Technology is only valuable if it helps make easier and more efficient the vital teacher-student link.

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