The purpose of the fund, announced as part of the Education Minister's strategy for colleges, is the "development of new or existing collaborative or co-operative ventures between colleges and the sensible avoidance of needless competition, duplication of effort or courses".
There are three strands to the new FE funding methodology: core funding, strategic initiative funding and student unit achievement funding. These are likely to replace the single-weighted SUM (student unit of measurement) funding and if approved should start in April. Within the new regime the Strategic Initiatives Fund will give the Scottish Office an opportunity to earmark money for initiatives ministers would like to see promoted.
"We welcome it and are already involved in a kind of pilot right now where there is a sum of money being offered for proof of co-operation between colleges on some initiatives," Richard Millham, principal of Motherwell College, said. "I clearly see it as an opportunity for the Scottish Office to say: we want this particular idea promoted and here is a sum of money the colleges can bid into to help us promote it."
Widening the scope of the Strategic Initiatives Fund is also seen positively since it would allow the promotion of innovative developments with specific challenge bids. "In Lanarkshire we have a particular need to meet the needs of inward investors, for example, where there is a huge change in the industrial base. It may be that the Scottish Office would seek to put some of its funding into that even though we would be bidding for local enterprise company funding," Mr Millham said. "We are the tool of the Scottish Office to deliver the FE service at local level, and provided we keep them well informed as to what the local issues are, I am sure they will take account of that."
Five Lanarkshire colleges are already moving forward through a consortium that operates informally, and the same colleges will work closely on the current bid. "The Lanarkshire base is actually a very good example," Mr Millham said. "We are five colleges that have not sat about and waited for this initiative to come along before doing collaborative ventures. We are already doing some of that and we will develop a lot more with the emphasis the government is now putting on it."
Hugh Walker, principal of Clydebank College, has been particularly pleased about broadening the scope of the fund from the original IT concept, but is anxious that there should be more clarification in terms of the framework itself.
"I welcome the broadening out from a narrow IT-based approach into something that is consistent with the Government's manifesto commitments," Mr Walker said. "As regards the strategic aspect, what the sector is clearly waiting for is more specific development of the actual framework itself and that will help frame much more clearly the kind of expectations government has of colleges with regard to collaboration in the future.
"We will work comfortably I am sure within that when it becomes clearer what is expected. The funding formula set up in 1992 was all about competition and rewards and I think the point has been made by principals on a number of occasions that if the behaviour of college and principals is to change then the institutional arrangements as regards funding will also have to change, " Mr Walker said.
He is confident that, despite the thrust of the recent funding formula, colleges have continued to collaborate in many different ways including Higher Still, and through the many formal and informal relationships among FE staff throughout the time of the most intense competition. "That has always been a part of the professional ethos within further education," he said.
Cardonald College is a member of both the Glasgow Community Colleges Group and the 10-strong Glasgow Telecolleges Network (GTN), and is therefore already involved in extensive collaboration. Ros Micklem, Cardonald's principal, said: "The 10 colleges have agreed to put the bulk of their Strategic Initiatives Fund money this year into the extension of the network and the creation of materials to use on it."
Ms Micklem added: "We felt that since we haven't very long to spend this year's money the best thing would be to build on something that is already happening. That was a clear need and one for which we welcomed the availability of funds to take it forward. We can see scope for a whole range of collaborative projects both within Glasgow and with other neighbours. Reid Kerr College in Paisley, for example, has already started talking to us and to some other colleges about collaboration on developing work with IT systems and using those for staff development."
As for the proposed size of the fund, Ms Micklem believes that any change might not be in the colleges' interest if it affects the main core funding.
"The problem is that whatever is put into that fund is taken out of the money over which we have more discretion, so although it is useful to have a steer as to how the Government would like to see FE colleges developing, I would be concerned if a large proportion of the money was used to give incentives to that steer.
"We should have the discretion to decide how much money we put into it. At Cardonald we would always choose to put a proportion of it into collaborative projects because we see those as an efficient and effective way of using our resources."