Battle for the heart of a city
At stake is up to pound;100 million of capital investment in the four colleges - Glasgow Metropolitan (the merged colleges of Building and Printing and Food Technology), Central College of Commerce, Stow and the College of Nautical Studies.
The council is adamant that it will not release these funds until a satisfactory agreement is reached with the colleges. A paper before its meeting last month stated: "The (council's) executive believes that progress is being made, although there is still a long way to go before the council will be in a position to approve any funding allocations."
But it is not just the discussions between the colleges and the council that have been fraught. Hard words have also been exchanged elsewhere. Some of the colleges suspect that the council is driven by an agenda that sees an "education zone" of all five colleges, along with Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities, emerging in the city centre's Cathedral Street - and that the council is using capital investment as a carrot andor stick to get what it wants.
Ms Roberton denies it is driving Cathedral Street as the only option. "We don't have the right to impose anything on colleges," she says, "but we do have to know what all the options are in full. We also have an obligation to spend efficiently and to comply with Treasury rules."
There seems to be some prospect of reaching agreement at least on a single estate for the three college sites currently on Cathedral Street - the merged colleges and the College of Commerce.
But Stow remains convinced that its best option is to relocate to Glasgow's new Central Quay development, a move which would require some millions from the funding council. And Glasgow College of Nautical Studies wants to stay where it is.
This has clearly irritated the council whose paper before the December meeting acknowledged that the two colleges expressed strong views over their future. "Accordingly, both colleges concentrated on providing evidence to support their preferred option and seemed reluctant to consider objectively any other alternative," the council states.
It goes on to suggest that talks with Stow in particular "have been characterised by assertion and challenge rather than discussion of current facts".
The upshot is that the chairs of all four college boards, under pressure from the council, have agreed collectively to commission consultants to do a full appraisal, looking at all the options not just those preferred by the council and the colleges.
Ms Roberton, while denying there is any hidden agenda on the part of the council, does refer enthusiastically to "a vision of having all colleges on the one site, sharing facilities and working with the universities who are keen to work with them.
"It does have major attractions and would be a huge prize for Scotland which could be the envy of the UK, even Europe."
The council points out there is considerable overlap in teaching between the four colleges and that, "whether from choice or necessity", students from all around Glasgow are prepared to travel to Cathedral Street in greater numbers than to the other, apparently closer, colleges.
The council believes it now has to look at the provision of FE in Glasgow city centre that it should be supporting, rather than the relocation of existing institutions. That has led to some signs of compromise in that it would be prepared to continue funding the community work that the College of Nautical Studies does in the Gorbals and the maritime provision it has on the Clyde, and that Stow would also continue its outreach work in Maryhill.
The consultants, whose work will be overseen by a steering group with an independent chair, are expected to make recommendations that could see work on the new college sites completed by 2007-08. An earlier appraisal estimated that moving all four colleges to Cathedral Street might take until 2010-11.
Meanwhile, there is rather better news for other colleges whose capital investment plans have been approved by the funding council. Among the 13 approved so far in a package worth pound;270 million are five brand new colleges - Edinburgh's Telford (at a total cost of pound;73 million, the largest FE project in the UK), South Lanarkshire (which will move from Cambuslang to East Kilbride), Motherwell, North Glasgow and Clydebank.
The other eight approved are Fife, Reid Kerr in Paisley, Glenrothes, Cardonald and John Wheatley in Glasgow, Stevenson in Edinburgh and Oatridge in West Lothian.
Another five colleges which have up to pound;170 million worth of building plans in the pipeline are Anniesland in Glasgow (which hopes for a new building), Borders, Jewel and Esk Valley in Edinburgh and Dalkeith, Langside in Glasgow and James Watt in Greenock.
These projects have been made possible by increasing allocations of Scottish Executive cash, building from an initial pound;38 million a year over five years to pound;66 million in 2005-06 and pound;88 million in each of the two years thereafter.
Ian Murning, a chartered surveyor who chairs the funding council's property and capital investment committee, says that "serious money from the Executive means we are able to make a major impact on Scotland's 46 colleges very quickly. Our aspiration is that in 10 years, if we spend at this rate, we will have an FE estate we can be proud of."
Mr Murning says it is not simply a matter of improving buildings. "We know from colleges that the self-esteem and morale of students and staff improves when their surroundings improve."
Fife College says recruitment rose by 25 per cent when its new St Brycesdale campus opened, while John Wheatley which serves Glasgow's east end also saw a 25 per cent increase in enrolments coinciding with a new building - and a drop in vandalism.