Colleges and their staff are entering a golden era, with more candidates for their many services than ever before. Harvey McGavin reports on an academic late developer.
On a timeline charting the history of our planet, human evolution registers as a frenzied burst of activity at its very end. Further education has been a similarly late developer. Although some colleges - or their forerunners - have been around for 100 years or more, it is only really in the past decade that they have begun to bloom.
Colleges are no longer purely vocational places, the "tech" or evening school or institute where people would go after work to brush up on their skills or gain the certificate that might lead to promotion. Times have changed and colleges with them.
Today's college - at once diverse and specialised, academic and practical - caters for every section of society and every level of study, from basic skills to degrees.
Rather like the law that states that work expands to fill the time available, so colleges have grown to meet the demand for learning. Further education is everything that happens after school and outside a university - which is to say a lot of learning. One post-war account describes FE as "mopping up the demand not satisfied by other sectors", a role it fulfils to this day.
The roots of FE were in mechanics' institutes and early programmes of adult continuing education, established by the efforts of working people and the community at large to provide for themselves.
Many of the 450 colleges in existence today can trace their roots back to mechanics' institutes - especially in the North - or schools of art and science established in response to the needs of local industry.
At the turn of the century, compulsory schooling ended at the age of 12, which for most people meant that work started at 13. Further education was not possible without a decent basic education, something that was denied to most people. The training offered by apprenticeships in trades or instruction by company superiors was the nearest most people came to lifelong learning.
Even then, funding was, at best, ad hoc. In 1890, an Act of Parliament gave the proceeds of taxes levied on spirits to local authorities, with the original intention that it should be used to pay for police pensions and compensate the licensees of redundant public houses. But councils were encouraged to spend it on technical education, and by the end of the century three-quarters of them were doing just that.
Between the wars, the Ordinary National Certificate and the Higher National Certificate were developed, providing the bread and butter of thousands of sandwich courses that would sustain colleges for years to come.
In the 1950s, with the Cold War at its height, comparisons were being made with the Soviet Union, which was spendingpound;100 million (a lot of money in those days) on technical education. Colleges were seen as the answer to the country's training needs.
A White Paper on technical education in 1956 established the Diploma of Technology in response to the "clamorous demands of industry" for technicians. But the strictures of class still pervaded - the paper decreed that there were three kinds of worker; technologists, technicians and craftsmen.
Day and block release became increasingly popular, and the number of people attending colleges more than doubled during the 1960s. The industry training boards set up in 1964, particularly in construction and engineering, began to exert a strong influence over what colleges offered trainees.
The further education sector gained a long-running Cinderella reputation for doing all the hard work without much of the recognition. But as some comprehensives and secondary moderns failed to establish viable sixth forms, more and more school-leavers turned to colleges to provide a broader choice of subjects - both academic and vocational - and a more grown-up atmosphere in which to learn. The number of students in full-time further education gradually increased from 13,000 in 1958 to 96,000 in l971.
In the 1980s, mass unemployment created an entirely new market for colleges - retraining. In the 1990s, incorporation set colleges free from the shackles of local authority control or left them at the mercy of commercial interests - depending on your point of view. Thousands of lecturers lost their jobs and those that remained saw their pay dwindle.
But, in many ways, further education is now entering a kind of golden age. It boasts record numbers of students - more than in the higher education sector - and it has, at last, the kind of political and financial support it deserves. Further education has changed a great deal in a century - and changed many lives.