No one warned me about what I would find when I began my job as chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council. When I started in this new role 18 months ago, one of the obvious and early things I did was to ask for a series of college visits to be planned for me.
I needed to immerse myself in this new world, and begin to try to understand the challenges that faced our colleges and other training providers. But nobody thought to warn me about what I might find.
My time at college 30 years earlier had been on an eight-week journalism block-release course. It was the start of a long career in newspapers that culminated with my running the Mirror Group before I made the jump into the public sector and the LSC.
It was the mid-Seventies, and I can recall the time spent at the college quite clearly. I can bring to mind the pleasant, relatively modern buildings we used, the bright and airy classrooms.
I can bring that environment to mind quite easily because it contrasted so sharply with the environment of my place of work - the ramshackle, dusty weekly newspaper office where I began my career.
I can bring it to mind quite simply because it was a better place to be.
The place of learning was a better place than the place of work. Now, 30 years on, no one thought to warn me about what I might find as I embarked on that first series of visits.
I won't name those first few colleges I saw - it wouldn't be fair to do so.
But no one thought to tell me we were still using those same buildings from 30 years or more before - only, of course, they didn't look remotely modern, bright or airy any more.
Nothing prepared me for the shock of discovering that those colleges of the 1960s and 1970s were, in fact, so much better than many other colleges in which people were struggling to deliver 21st-century education in 19th-century buildings.
No one told me, either, about the temporary buildings I would find pretty much everywhere I went - buildings that had been pressed into what was supposed to be temporary service decades before, but they were still being used as shabby and decaying classrooms. Nor did they mention the engineering workshops I would see that looked more like museums.
I believe passionately that when you walk through the door of a place of learning, you should feel proud, uplifted and motivated. On visiting those colleges, far from feeling uplifted it was difficult to stop my heart from sinking.
Of course, as soon as I met the people there it began to lift again. I met so many dedicated, committed, professional people, determined to succeed despite the environments they had to teach in.
I learned about the enormous waste of time and money involved in a daily battle to keep badly-equipped, inadequate buildings functioning. I learned about the inefficiency and massive maintenance costs involved. Perhaps most important of all, I learned what a turn-off these buildings were to the students and how little respect it showed to them that their place of learning was so much poorer than any other place they would choose to be.
Of course, I have learned a great deal since those early weeks and those early visits.
Since then, I have been to more than 60 colleges, and along the way I have seen many great new buildings. I know now the investment we have made and the progress we have achieved in modernising the further education estate.
But everything I have seen, everything I have learned, has only served to reinforce what I believed from the start - that great buildings really can make a great difference. They provide the right environments for teachers to teach. They enable teachers to use the latest teaching technologies.
They are more efficient in energy costs and maintenance costs.
But this is not just about replacing the old with the new and getting a few useful benefits along the way. It's much more than that.
All over the country, we are seeing that if we build great, modern, exciting buildings, then we get some amazing results. We are seeing more young people wanting to learn at these new colleges. More young people are staying on at them, rather than dropping out after just a few months. And we are seeing examination results improving.
The educationists would talk about increased participation, greater retention and improving success rates. I would prefer to talk about young people getting a better start in life. And that means that they were encouraged to go to college and stay there because we built a place that was exciting and new. We built a place they wanted to go to.
We are also starting to see other important developments. We are seeing that local employers, too, are responding to these new environments. They are starting to reconsider using colleges to play a key role in the training and development of their staff. And perhaps that is not surprising because the learning environment is once again becoming at least as good as - if not better than - the working environment. Employers are starting to feel good about colleges again.
Colleges are taking the opportunity of their new buildings to provide what employers want - to deliver training in those leading-edge technologies that will allow them to make a real difference to productivity.
And through this rebuilding and modernisation programme we are seeing something else: we are seeing the key role colleges can play in major urban regeneration schemes.
There can be few institutions that bring so many thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life to one area of a town or city as much as a college does. I have been delighted to see so many colleges at the heart of major development plans to bring new life to formerly deprived urban areas.
I would maintain that the power of this college building programme is immense: it changes young people's lives; it helps employers to get the skills they need; it provides new opportunities for young people and adults; it bolsters communities; it plays a key role in urban regeneration; and I would contend that there can be fewer better investments of public money.
I have seen evidence of all this in many places. I have seen wonderful, imaginative buildings delivering the benefits I have described. I have seen it in Hackney and Islington, Southend, Liverpool, Birmingham, Hull, Sheffield, Lincoln, Warwickshire, and many other places. Just as exciting, I have seen the plans for many more developments - really striking plans for new campuses and buildings up and down the land.
Since 1993, half of the FE estate - nearly 200 of our 400 colleges - has been substantially renewed or modernised. And that is no mean achievement.
Our capital expenditure budgets currently support investment of about Pounds 600 million a year, with the LSC funding an average of 35 per cent of this and the balance coming one way or another from colleges' own resources.
The problem is, though, that at this rate of expenditure it is going to take until 2017 at the earliest before the job is done. Only, of course, it won't be done - because by that time some of our colleges will be more than 20 years old, and the whole cycle begins anew.
We need to go faster, and the objective we have set is that we want to accelerate the programme and complete it in the next five or six years. We are now looking at ways of doing this.
In that regard, the Chancellor's announcement in the Budget of pound;350m more capital investment for FE was very, very welcome news. Indeed, if investment could be sustained at this level, we would be able to achieve our objective of accelerating the programme by five years. This is an exciting period.
Let me conclude by saying this: I believe that we have a fantastic opportunity to make a real difference. We can make a difference to the environments of our towns and cities, to employers, and to the economy as a whole. Most of all, we can make a difference to people's lives.
I would urge you to work with us to seize that opportunity. Wherever I go, I try to encourage college principals and college governors to do the same.
I try to encourage them, and I would encourage you to be bold and imaginative with your plans. I would urge you to work together and understand the kind of flexible modern learning environments we need.
And then I would urge you to go and make some great buildings for us. Make us some buildings that will make people proud; buildings that make a real statement about the importance of education - right at the heart of the communities they serve; buildings to which employers want to send their employees - to get the skills they need to compete; buildings that give adults new opportunities for the future; and buildings that young people think are cool.
This article is based on a speech given by Mark Haysom to the Royal Institute of British Architects