MONEY and politics are the issues looming even larger than usual over Welsh colleges this year.
Politics comes in the form of the Welsh Assembly to be elected in May.
Schools are set to stay largely in the hands of local authorities and the Assembly's powers over higher education are limited - hence colleges are in line for unprecedented political prominence.
The money - and it will be a lot - should come from the European Union. If large parts of Wales are classified as regions whose "development is lagging", they will be awarded Objective One status. And this means cash from the EU's six-year structural funding programme which starts in 2000.
Angharad Davies, policy and European officer at the Welsh colleges' organisation, Fforwm, sees Objective One status as "certain, barring some catastrophe".
An Office of National Statistics survey, completed last autumn, showed that almost the whole of west Wales and the Valleys are eligible. Eighteen of the 26 colleges in Wales fall into these districts, with seven outside, and Gwent Tertiary College straddling the boundary.
How much money this will mean is unclear. Estimates vary from pound;750 million to pound;2 billion, with Fforwm's best guess at around pound;1.6bn. Colleges will be eligible to bid for a large chunk of it. Of this, up to 40 per cent may be used for human resources projects. This would amount to an extra pound;100m per year.
Colleges will receive just over pound;200m from the Further Education Funding Council for Wales in 1999-2000 and an extra pound;10m the following year.
If they manage to secure 50 per cent of the Objective One human resources funding - Fforwm chief executive Mike Jones notes that they provide around 75 per cent of the post-16 education in Wales - they can expect to add 25 per cent to their FEFCW core.
Current European Union funding to colleges runs at around pound;10-12m per year.
Davies sees both a chance and a threat in the extra money: "It is a remarkable opportunity for the sector, but there is also the worry that unless we plan properly the money could be wasted and in six or seven years' time we might be wondering where it all went."
Among the strings attached to Objective One is that any money from the EU must be matched by the same amount raised locally. In practice this is likely to mean sweet-talking the Assembly and other public funders.
So politicians and civil servants have to be persuaded of the value of Objective One projects. Jones points to a good start in the invitation to Fforwm to provide a member of the Welsh Office working party which will draw up the action plan to be submitted to the European Commission.
John Stephenson, principal of Coleg Powys - which is outside the Objective One region - has been nominated.
Mike Jones says: "That we were invited rather than having to beg for a place at the top table shows recognition of the importance of the sector."
Fforwm, which signals its own priorities by devoting around 25 per cent of its staff resources to the EU, has appointed its own working party and commissioned research from Cardiff University on Ireland's experience of Objective One.
Angharad Davies says: "Ireland provides us with a good, nearby example of somewhere that has made a great deal of its Objective One status.
"We think that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from their experience and hope we can come up with examples of their success which can be taken up by the Welsh Office task force."
She expects to see equal opportunities programmes and some spending on infrastructure -"There are a lot of crumbling buildings" - among the benefits from Objective One.
The Fforwm working party is chaired by Pat Jones, European Officer at Carmarthenshire College of Technology and Art.
She says: "This is an unprecedented opportunity to develop long-term links with partners both in business and in the voluntary sector.
"In particular it may provide the chance to work with groups in the community, which can be expensive but also do a lot of very important and worthwhile work."
32 FE Focus TESJjanuary 15J1999 Cut above: engineering student Mark Peachey uses a band-saw at Pontypridd College in south Wales, among those hoping for EU cash 'It is a remarkable opportunity but unless we plan properly the money could be wasted in six or seven years' jeff morgan media watch