Further education colleges have much to contribute and much to gain from the change of government. The last government recognised the need for vocational education and training to remedy Britain's chronic deficit in intermediate or lower level qualifications and skills but did not take the steps needed to improve the situation. It would be a pity if the new ministerial team at the Scottish Office was put off FE by the glaring picture painted by Joe Eyre of the College Lecturers' Association last week.
Let us start with what can be agreed. "The incoming Government will have to address (the) central problem of sectoral underfunding" for colleges, Mr Eyre states. Indeed so.
The Association of Scottish Colleges made a strong case to previous ministers for more realistic financial provision for the sector. Some 9 per cent growth in activity and gains of more than 6 per cent in efficiency in 1995-96 went unrewarded. Worse, colleges were expected to meet all the costs of capital projects (including renewal of buildings and equipment) from their recurrent budgets, and assumed to be able to deliver major new initiatives such as Higher Still by dipping into the same reduced pot.
None of this is sustainable. Systems of funding that focus only on growth and efficiency put at risk quality, facilities and responsiveness to changing needs. The case for increased funding in order to address the new Government's priorities for young people, lifelong learning and welfare-to-work policies is unanswerable.
To claim a strategic role and advance its claims for funding, FE has to be a leader of change. Principals and boards of management are bound to think not just in terms of survival of their college but improvement of the range, flexibility and attractiveness of their services. There is no "conscript" market as there is for schools. Customers have to be won in the face of competition with other sectors of education and private training providers.
The new Government is committed to "develop a new strategic framework for Scottish further education to improve co-ordination between colleges and maximise access to all courses without needless competition between colleges". This will be accomplished only if there is a much clearer strategy for the sector and enough funding to deliver it. But there is a tantalising range of issues to discuss with the new Government as to how this will be pursued.
Since incorporation, colleges have not been restricted by formal catchment areas or external prescription as to the courses they can offer. In theory, students and employers are much freer to choose the courses or colleges they want. But how can colleges respond to student demand and employer requirement when full-time higher education is capped by decree (other than in the Highlands and Islands colleges) and by a fixed cash limit on bursaries for non-advanced vocational education?
Strategy implies a clear rationale for Government policy and funding. Will we get one? A review of the system for allocating recurrent funds to colleges was agreed by the previous Government and is now in progress. The old game of just "allocating the available funds" is played out. Colleges need explicit priorities and a stable unit of funding on which to plan and grow for the future. There also needs to be much greater openness about the non-formula elements of funding.
The quickest and best of quick fixes would be a major injection of additional resources. There is a strong case for this and ASC will press it. We intend to push FE much higher up the list of ministers' priorities. Even if we are told there is "no new money" overall, there is still a battle to be fought on reallocation in early years and for extra in the years beyond.
The ASC is happy to ally itself with the lecturers and support staff unions in arguing the case for better funding in Scotland. The universities and other higher education institutions have benefited greatly from the fact that principals and unions have sung the same refrain about the pressures on their teaching and research. It is very galling that the institutions funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council got respite from efficiency cuts in 1997-98 despite under-recruitment of students. The answer is to show that FE can and does deliver a more needed quality and range of services at a better price.
The new Government has promised a quite different tone and style of conducting public business in Scotland. If the Secretary of State and his colleagues are in genuine listening mode, the claims of FE will not go unheard. Mixed messages about the problems or dissension within the sector will make it harder to get the answers that most matter on strategy and funding.
And so to matters of disagreement. Some of the local disputes with lecturing staff to which Mr Eyre refers may have been resolved by the time this article appears. Many staff would like their pay to go up automatically and their conditions of service to be preserved or enhanced without any qualification. Can it really be assumed that structures and conditions of service designed for very different circumstances will stand up to the new challenges colleges face? Entrenchment is not the best approach for any college or the long-term future of its staff.
Current negotiations in colleges are sensitive and difficult for all those involved. Ritual denunciations, especially when these are based on inaccurate accounts of events, do not help anyone. Negotiators on the management side know that quality of teaching is the main asset of a college. What they face is insistent pressure from the Scottish Office to bring unit costs down and to eliminate operating deficits. Imputing motives to the participants is both unfair and a distraction from real issues. Jobs will not be protected if colleges are allowed by their managers to slip deeper into crisis.
Of course, there is scope for improving relationships within colleges as well as outside or between colleges. These issues can be tackled effectively - and calmly - without major disruption.
FE is a major national public service provided locally in Scotland by colleges. Many of the colleges are the premier educational institutions in their community. Pressures for change are intense and are unlikely to diminish. Principals and boards of management need a fair opportunity to get to grips with the new challenges and opportunities before damning judgments are made.
Tom Kelly is chief officer, Association of Scottish Colleges.