RE-ESTABLISHMENT of trust between college staff and managements emerged as a key theme of the recent STUC conference on the future of further education in Scotland (TESS, last week).
The tramlines were familiar enough. College boards are secretive and unaccountable, the unions claim. Staff are sticking to inflexible working practices unsuited to the new FE market-place, the management asserts.
The Government believes it has done its bit, addressing a legacy of financial instability, pouring in an extra pound;214 million over the next three years, setting out a new strategy for the sector, and establishing the Further Education Funding Council (just as Labour is proposing to abolish its equivalents in England and Wales).
Apart from the FEFC, the colleges will shortly have another new master in the shape of the Scottish parliament. Expectations of the former are high; the impact of the latter is unknown.
Bob Beattie, the funding council's chairman, helped raise expectations still further when he spoke at the conference on the importance of consultation, dialogue, inclusiveness and transparency - etc, etc. It was not difficult to win over his audience with such an agenda.
Mr Beattie's view that the only "rampant competition" between colleges should be for each to strive to become the very best, not to pursue the same students, made him even more cuddly. A promise that college staff would help influence FE policy, strategy and funding was almost the stuff of standing ovations. After all that, he scarcely needed his favourite soundbite that FE is "the jewel in the crown of Scottish education".
It will, of course, take some time for the jury to come back in. Even the Government's much-vaunted delivery of additional millions, both unions and employers point out, is not as generous as it seems.
In a paper prepared for the conference, the unions declared the money to be "welcome but insufficient" to address six years of underfunding since incorporation. The extra pound;214 million represents funding increases of 14 per cent, 10 per cent and 8 per cent in each of the next three years.
"Allowing for inflation and the fact that the vast majority of colleges enter this period in deficit and also allowing that it has to fund an additional 40,000 student places," the unions state, "it is difficult to view this increase as being sufficient to seriously improve the financial health of the sector."
The conference had no difficulty accepting the conclusions of one group of participants that the competitiveness engendered by a market-driven approach in FE had been disastrous. "We're not different entities but different branches of the same shop," as one speaker put it.
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, was quick to point out that satisfying FE customers, fulfilling student needs and meeting the skills requirements of employers - the normal FE mission - were also part of the "market".
But Mr Kelly agreed that the new funds are not what they seem. "Although there might be a 13.8 per cent increase this year for the sector as a whole," he said, "that doesn't mean individual colleges will benefit to that extent."
The recurrent grant allocations for the current financial year range from a decrease of 2 per cent in the case of Glasgow College of Food Technology to a 72 per cent increase for Orkney College.
Stuart Niven, chairman of the board at Clydebank College and a senior management figure in FE, condemned the absence of a level playing-field.
"Many colleges began under incorporation saddled with debt. To expect boards of management to dig their way out of a financial pit in which they found themselves through no fault of their own, in competition with other colleges who were in the black through no effort of their own, is grossly unfair."
Mr Niven, the former principal of the Scottish School of FE at Jordanhill, presided over the first real college crisis as consultants were put into Clydebank to oversee a financial rescue plan ordered by the Scottish Office. That led to 40 redundancies among part-time and full-time academic staff last year.
The Clydebank chairman, questioned the system of checks on colleges through measuring student activity and achievement.
Stuart Niven suggested the best means of guaranteeing quality was to ensure staff were up to the job. And, in a departure from the official management line, he said that could be demonstrated if they had to register with the General Teaching Council. Mr Niven sits on the GTC's FE committee.
The requirement on university lecturers to register with the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Mr Niven said, would leave FE to "stand alone as the only sector of education which does not require its staff to be registered".
Mr Niven also supported moves to strike as many national agreements as possible. "Does it really make sense for 43 colleges to be writing 43 separate policies on whistle-blowing," he asked, "and that's only one example."
But he stopped short of endorsing any return to national bargaining on pay and conditions.