HENRY McLEISH, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, is ready to defend lecturers against college managers if he receives clear evidence of unfair treatment.
"If there was enough concern expressed to me, it would be incumbent upon me to find a way to look at it," Mr Mr McLeish said in an interview with The TES Scotland.
Conflict in the sector damaged progress towards turning Scotland into "a learning nation", the minister's big idea for his new department. Managers and staff had to work as partners and Mr McLeish warned that continuing tension in some colleges could force his intervention.
"There are employees who feel they do not get a fair deal and there is a general feeling that some of the college boards are not as accountable as they might be," he said. "I am not willing to act on hearsay, but if we are talking about sound financial structures and modern management, then we have also got to look at the issue of governance."
Lecturers' views had not always been respected after colleges had become independent institutions, he said. A former part-time lecturer himself, who chaired Fife's further education subcommittee from 1978 to 1982, Mr McLeish added: "I feel very strongly about people at the chalkface because they are crucial. A lot of feedback I get is that there is a lot of unhappiness, but we cannot have that as part of moving forward."
Mr McLeish wants a line drawn under the recent chequered past of further education, a sector hit by more industrial disputes than any other. However, there is no prospect of a return to previous structures. Colleges will stay as incorporated bodies and there will be no obligation to go back to collective bargaining, a festering union grievance.
Despite hopes of a fresh start for the new millennium, further difficulties lie ahead with Mr McLeish warning of "tough decisions" on college restructuring. Cost-cutting and putting budgets on a sound footing will inevitably imply risks to lecturers' jobs.
Mr McLeish insisted that injections of new money into FE would help colleges sort out their financial problems. "Some could do better but some were faced with a set of financial circumstances let loose from local councils which made their lives pretty difficult," he acknowledged. "However, I expect everyone to adjust. We must have sound finances."
Mr McLeish said he was "hard-headed" about the quality of FE management, now under review by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. Managers could do better and should be able to release resources.
"There have been inconsistencies between colleges but that should not mask serious deficiencies in management that have to be addressed. There is a real challenge for colleges and a challenge we want to help with," he said.
Picking up the theme of previous Labour ministers, he said that colleges had to work together to avoid unnecessary competition.
Devolution meant a new beginning for FE, just as it meant a new departmental structure, combining enterprise and lifelong learning, a move that would have been impossible at Westminster, Mr McLeish pointed out.
That type of new working should also be evident at local level if the dream of a learning nation is to become a reality. The minister, taking his cue from Tony Blair, is making lifelong learning his passion but recognises a quantum leap is needed.
"The prospect for individuals will be bleak in the new century and, equally important, the prospects for Scotland will be bleak if we cannot start to embrace in a practical sense some of the aspirations we have had for some time," he states.
Scotland was building from a solid foundation, firmed up by the development of the University for Industry, the University of the Highlands and Islands and individual learning accounts. While the Government could set the debate and motivate, it was employers that had most to do.
A skills tally showed Scotland running well behind countries such as Japan, Germany and even England at a time when the knowledge economy was more important than ever. "Our employers, on average, are not doing well in investing in their own workforce. The Government can only do so much. If training is a market failure, then the market has to respond," he said.
Mr McLeish is determined to see a skills revolution with employers leading the charge, backed by colleges, which will have a key role in recruiting adults from communities that have shunned education and training. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to see a significant rise in the number of students from social classes 3, 4 and 5.
The slight matter of student funding and tuition fees will present the minister with his own challenge around Christmas and funding students from classes 4 and 5 remains a matter of some importance to Mr McLeish. "The issue to be looked at is the whole jungle of post-16 funding, including bursaries," he stresses.
How that pans out is sure to be a sign of how far Scotland has to travel to become a learning nation.