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Students at 25 north-eastern colleges are preparing to log on to further education's largest computer network.

The Northern Colleges Network, led by Darlington College of Technology and financed through the Competitiveness Fund, will be launched in September. The initiative is the closest FE has yet come to the kind of national network envisaged by the Higginson Committee. Its report in January estimated an Pounds 85 million investment in ITwas needed to prepare colleges for the next millennium.

It will put the institutions in direct electronic touch with each other to exchange information and learning materials, offer more on-line training to local companies and allow national and international links on the Internet.

The Further Education Funding Council has told colleges they are unlikely to get much extra public-sector money to meet the Higginson recommendations. The north-east partners hope to secure cash through contracts and investment from local industry.

Coinciding with the development of the network, Darlington has also opened its own Information Learning Technologies Centre. The centre brings all student services including course guidance and tutorial support together with open access computer learning under one roof.

The college, which launched the centre with a live link-up with a community college in Atlanta, Georgia, has developed its video conferencing facilities to allow students and staff to see and speak to their global contacts.

A working party to consider the Higginson report has been set up by the Further Education Development Agency. Some colleges feel progress on the Higginson recommendations has been far too slow.

The only part likely to be in place by September is the staff development programme. Plans for a national computer network along the lines of JANET, the universities' system, and of centres for developing new learning materials are on the back burner.

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