Opportunities for Everyone was billed by the Scottish Ofice as "not a prescriptive plan (but) a set of principles and priorities". But these principles leave little room for doubt that the Government intends wielding a stick, backed by the carrot of pound;214 million extra over the next three years.
Colleges are expected to improve student access, link up with councils, schools, universities, employers, voluntary organisations and community education, pay more attention to student achievement and drop-out rates, establish "the highest standards of governance and management", and step up collaboration and mergers.
The paper declares: "If this whole framework is not to be a box-ticking bureaucracy, it is vital that there is continual and demonstrable improvement across the board in performance by colleges." In a specific message on the leadership of boards and senior management, it warns: "The difference between the best and the worst is very considerable - unacceptably so." It wants a regular "skills audit" for senior managers.
The sector as a whole is urged to accept that there are too many colleges - "not a comfortable message", the Scottish Office concedes. "The rapid expansion of recent years has exhausted many of the most obvious markets," it adds.
Helen Liddell symbolically unveiled the framework at the official launch on Wednesday of the Glasgow Telecolleges Network, which links the city's 10 colleges.