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Human capital is the new currency;FE Focus;ASC annual conference

Neil Munro reports from the ASC's annual conference in Dunblane on the new ministerial drive for lifelong education

THE Government wants to see a return on its investment in further education, the Lifelong Learning Minister told college principals and board chairmen. But, Henry McLeish said, this was "not just a narrow financial return but one right across the board of human capital".

An extra pound;214 million is being committed to colleges over three years, bringing total Scottish Office spending on the sector to pound;444 million. Mr McLeish's remarks suggest he is determined not just to see financial efficiency but progress on delivering the Government's preoccupations of wider access, lifelong learning and raising attainment.

In his first speech on FE since his appointment, Mr McLeish told the Association of Scottish Colleges in Dunblane: "You have a friend at court - although I will drive you hard." The fact that the Government has been prepared to invest heavily in FE was a tribute to colleges' success.

Mr McLeish confirmed that his ministerial brief will be mirrored when the Scottish Parliament's committee system is set up, which means there will effectively be a schools committee and a post-school committee.

He had no new initiatives to announce and the speech was largely a restatement of policy. The watch-phrases continue to be collaboration not competition between colleges and wider student access. He gave no indication he was an enthusiast for a return to national pay bargaining, saying: "The clock is not going to be turned back."

Mr McLeish also revealed a couple of personal crusades. He would be taking a close interest in special needs whose inclusion was essential if "education for all" was to have any meaning. And he pledged to be "an advocate not just a manager in the ministry", aiming to revolutionise attitudes to lifelong learning which must become the norm not the exception. "It's about empowerment of the individual," he said, "in which we create a dynamic in every workplace and in which every workplace is a learning place."

On student finance, Mr McLeish gave little away while negotiations are ongoing with Labour's coalition partners over setting up an independent inquiry. It will have 10 to 12 members who will be named by July 2.

He was able to announce, however, that FE would be represented and he confirmed that the whole of FE would be part of the inquiry's remit, including bursaries for non-advanced students, fees and fee waivers as well as tuition fees for higher education students in FE.

Mr McLeish repeated the Government's view that "there are no options free of cost" when it comes to tuition fees, whose abolition he estimated would cost between pound;40 million and pound;60 million.

In a hint of a further shake-up to come, the minister said it might be time to examine the whole field of post-16 financial support. The issues were complex and levels of support varied and variable, Mr McLeish said, but he made clear this would not be part of the student funding review.

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