The policy of growth which accompanied incorporation freed colleges from some rather unimaginative local authority straitjackets. There was a torrent of innovation, much of it to a NATFHE educational agenda - better access, social justice, second chances and so on. But there was too high a price paid by staff and in course quality.
For many lecturers the past five years have been thoroughly miserable. Even those caught up in the early excitement feel betrayed by the low pay, the constant restructuring and the explosion in paperwork. More than 15,000 were retired early or made redundant.
A pile-'em-deep teach-'em cheap approach led to increases in class sizes and in lecturers' teaching hours, and a cut in the time devoted to each subject. The funding mechanism drew precious resources away from the chalk-face.
The system broke the health of many principals in small colleges who had little opportunity to invest in sufficient staff to help them cope. To meet expansion targets colleges engaged in destructive competition with neighbouring colleges and advertising wars. Some colleges were bound to be losers and a few, remarkably few, were gainers.
Further education, the only sector of industry to have its own column in Private Eye, was associated with sleaze, macho management, dubious franchising, ghost classes and unit farming.
The contracts issue became a totem which brought college corporations into conflict with the very people they needed to take with them - the staff in colleges where the corporation refused to negotiate. There are long-serving Silver-book lecturers who have not had a pay rise for four years.
Lecturers refused to submit meekly. The contract strikes which greeted vesting day in Birmingham and the Black Country five years ago spread with varying degrees of intensity around the country. NATFHE topped the strike league two years running.
1998 has to see a new start for FE colleges. Clearly it's not going to be easy. The Government's vision of a learning society with 500,000 extra students will be no more than a heap of glossy blue booklets unless it is properly funded.
NATFHE and the Association of Colleges have a key role in the Government's Learning Age. But no Government is going to risk serious investment in an academic battlefield. The contracts dispute has to be brought to an end.
This means difficult compromises for both the AOC and NATFHE on a national framework agreement with safeguards on maximum teaching hours.
Any concordat must also move us from a period of total management control into an era of respect. In every college we have to rediscover the art of consultation and negotiation because to respect means to listen to the support staff and lecturers who will be the builders of the new Learning Age.
NATFHE's leadership is ready to take the risk. In our optimistic moments, we take heart from:
* A Government whose economic, social and educational policies have lifelong learning as a key strategic objective.
* A new board for the AOC.
* A redressing of the democratic deficit on college governing bodies - with staff, students, the community and local council governors all represented.
* The EU directive on part-time work outlawing discrimination on the basis of how many hours you work and the Government's examination of bogus self-employment through agencies.
* The 850 new NATFHE members in January and February which suggests we are regaining our status as the voice of further and higher education.
Of course, many difficulties remain. A total of 86 per cent of colleges had their budgets cut this year. There seems little let up in redundancies. The new pension rules mean the over-50s will not get early retirement. Those on long periods of ill-health retirement - often as a result of stress - can only get pensionable benefit if they are "permanently" incapable of teaching.
Pessimism of the intellect suggests that the misery will continue for a good while yet. But optimism of the will directs us to those chinks of opportunity offered by the Government.