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The right prescription to end a catalogue of ills

AT THE end of June and a long hard session for further education, the words of Star Trek's Dr "Bones" McCoy sprang to mind: "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it." Why were we so sick and tired? The answer lies in a complex catalogue of ills.

First, we were suffering from change fatigue, a condition in which initiatives and central developments take us over. Each one - Higher Still, New Deal, University for Industry, wider access - may be meritable in its own right. But taken together pressure and pain build up.

Then there is audititis. Scottish Office self-evaluation, SQA, SQMS, IIP audits - all similar, all different, all necessary. It can't go on, surely.

There was also the affliction of chronic acrimony in the FE sector. The relentless drive for efficiency and financial health has created a breed of macho managers who are not comfortable with the New Labour message on collaboration and consensus. Colleges at war with themselves, or each other, are not healthy in terms of money, people or learning services.

Finally, FE has gone through a long period of corporate leprosy syndrome. We are either excluded from big initiatives or have not been seen as "major players" (to quote former Education Minister Brian Wilson) in agenda-setting circles.

Don't let us forget that for three years or more our seriously sick buildings have been virtually ignored by central government. The much heralded letters PPP should reflect a private-public partnership. In fact, they have come to mean postpone, postpone, postpone.

So this summer's promised injection of Pounds 40 million - next year absorbed into Pounds 214 million over the three-year funding period - has resurrected the primary organs of a tired sector.

I hope Helen Liddell, Mr Wilson's successor, decides to use the revised spending priorities to help us address our own ills. The antidote to FE ill health goes beyond mere money. But the funds must be directed where they are needed most: front-line delivery of lifelong learning.

This will require that the service is properly planned and not overrun by initiatives, that audits and inspections are rationalised and made more coherent, that the philosophy of the fairness at work and human rights legislation impacts on colleges and that FE is brought in from the cold and included by government in significant economic, social and educational debates.

A national review of salaries and conditions may be needed. We need to attract new blood to the profession. The comprehensive spending review must therefore be reinforced by an adventurous White Paper on lifelong learning and a strategic framework for skills development and further education.

It would be nice to think that the antidote will work but there are many alchemists and witch doctors peddling their wares everywhere. Not quite seeking our life blood but certainly offering big, big promises.

Two examples spring to mind. First, the local enterprise company network. Every FE professional should take some time to read Scottish Enterprise's Skill Strategy Review. This casually locates FE as part of a newly emerging knowledge economy where intellect is the basis of wealth creation.

We should welcome the recognition, but FE could suffer badly if Scottish Enterprise or its LEC partners fail to bring together business, particularly small business, and the "learning industry". I have serious reservations about the emerging model and the capacity of LECs to succeed in this endeavour.

Second, there is the voluntary sector. The annual internecine struggle to win European funds is seeing FE undermined by the voluntary organisations which receive significant public funding to build mini-colleges and duplicate what FE does already. There is also an increasing trend in directing European Social Fund training money towards an unsustainable intermediate labour market. Surely this Government has made its intentions clear. The focus is on real skills and real jobs.

A fit, healthy FE sector is central to the New Deal commitment of turning employability into employment. If the White Paper were to conclude, "It's FE, Jim, but not as we know it", so be it. There is no doubt that FE will rise to the challenge and get its recuperation in first.

Graeme Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College, Glasgow, and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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