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Some day everyone will go to college

As the 10th anniversary of incorporation nears, Tom Kelly speculates on the shape of things to come

ONE thing will certainly have changed in the next decade after incorporation. A majority of Scots of working age will have had some experience of learning in or through an FE college. No longer should FE face the blank looks and indifference of people with experience only of schools and universities. This should mean a base of political support which the decision-takers and Scottish Parliament ignore at their peril.

Scotland does have one sound reason for taking a completely new view of its prospects. That reason is demography - the prospect of an ageing population having to support itself for longer and less able to rely on new cohorts of young people to start at the bottom of paid work.

The last decade saw a major shift in balance of the student population of colleges from a predominance of school-leavers to a majority of over-25s.

There could well be a much bigger shift in the next decade to a student population of people returning in their 40s, 50s and even 60s to prepare for new occupations or - dare I say it - trades.

For governance, the signs are less good. Incorporation was the product of a "free market" philosophy which lost its prominence at the general election in 1997. The aim of abolishing the "nanny state" now seems only a distant memory. Nanny is back and busier than ever with instructions and guidance.

Scotland is awash with regulatory and other intermediary agencies.The belief seems to be that watchers need watchers to watch them watching.

Of course there have been problems. Mistakes and errors of judgment happen in any complex business. But why is it so readily assumed in post-devolution Scotland that the best answer is always more tick lists and more supervision? The few mistakes there have been would not be made by the same colleges today and would not have been made by other colleges even at their time of commission.

Colleges will none the less need to be much more "quasi-judicial" and formal in dealing with staff complaints and staff grievances. Already some of these cases are being taken direct to the petitions committee of the Scottish Parliament even before the appropriate college machinery has properly considered them.

The pessimists might well conclude that a sector of independent incorporated colleges, with boards of management consisting of unpaid volunteers, will have had its day. But look across the border where the Learning and Skills Council is drawing back from intervention and detailed supervision and is reducing red tape. They are even using the word "trust" about their relationship with colleges and - praise be - the T word is even starting to get a mention in Scotland.

I reckon incorporated colleges of FE will still be here in 2013 because the penny will finally have dropped that, in marked contrast to other public services, the FE sector has remarkably low overheads. Governance on the cheap it may be but it serves the sector and Scotland very well.

As for funding, there is unlikely to be any change in the pattern of resources constraining supply rather than fully matching demands or needs.

One challenge is the misguided enthusiasm by elite universities in England for "top-up fees". These could lead to a real revolution of the relationship with students on HE courses. Will Scotland be able to afford the kind of compromise fashioned after the Cubie report to keep down student debt and to make a sizeable grant contribution for maintenance of those from low-income households? And where will all this leave the student finance system - bursaries - for FE courses?

As far as learning and teaching are concerned, many enthusiasts thought that off-campus learning would take over - until the bubble burst.

In 1999, some were even saying that the e-learning revolution would be in full-swing by 2003. No one today is so gung-ho. A global market dominated by commercial suppliers - the Microsofting of education - still looms as a possibility.

Colleges are not so conservative or hidebound as schools and traditional subject departments in universities. But the process of teaching and learning requires much more than fast access to jazzy material on the internet. Not only do students need the support of tutors for advancing their understanding, but their habit of learning benefits hugely from direct and day to day contact with other students.

So far, most of the applications of e-learning have been very narrow in scope and small in scale and it is easier to see e-learning as an aid to institutions and individuals rather than as a substitute for the campus.

The vision for 2013 ought to be colleges with state of the art buildings and facilities, well rewarded and contented staff, and a wide range of courses and levels of study. Colleges have to be realistically funded for these improvements and the extra cash in 2004-06 should enable a start to be made.

The main driver of lifelong learning is student demand and that remains unfathomably strong. Despite very tight margins of funding, colleges have proved themselves resilient and resourceful. I do not see that ending or even diminishing over the next decade.

Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, whose annual conference takes place this week. This is an extract from an article in the journal "Broadcast" and is reprinted by permission of the Scottish Further Education Unit.

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