Iain Thorburn finds a ferociously successful survivor in Scotland's war of expansion. Expand or die was the clear message sent out by Government on incorporation, and no college in Scotland has taken it more to heart than James Watt in Greenock.
In 1991 it had a full-time equivalent roll of 600; in 1995 the figure is 2,500. This performance makes the college a big winner in the competition for funding for next session - but not big enough to satisfy principal Terry Davies: "We have expanded far more quickly than any other college in Scotland, " he says. "But under the present arrangements that will still leave us 50 per cent underfunded, as against 75 per cent before."
Since incorporation, Scotland's 43 colleges have been sheltered from the full blast of market forces by a "safety net" of historic and institutional factors built into the performance-related funding formula, which is being phased in gradually.
The aim was to take account of the great differences between colleges and of their doubts about the validity of the data on which the formula was based. These fears have been largely allayed, and both the employers' and the principals' associations now want to move as quickly as possible to full formula funding.
Only then, says Terry Davies, will incorporation become a reality, not least for staff. For now, though, there is far too much protectionism in Scotland, which can only be explained by "political cautiousness". Nor has the college's big expansion in HNCD courses from about four to about 90 in four years proved advantageous in funding terms.
Advanced courses give you income, says Terry Davies, "but 90 per cent is retained by the Scottish Office. So it's like a treadmill. The formula ratio gives a 21:15 advantage to non-advanced work, so in the main, colleges do HNC and HND because they feel they need that educational provision.
"Everybody knows we need technicians, but the system is finance-driven and there's not enough money there to fund advanced work. HNC and HND courses have not been made attractive because the Scottish Office can't fund the student grants."
The increase in the number of non-advanced full-time courses from 25 to 65 is much less dramatic. But with the number of part-time courses remaining fairly constant - though there has been a big rise in evening classes - it is clear that the growth area for recruitment is in full-time courses.
James Watt has more full-time courses than any other college in Scotland, says Terry Davies. In part, as in many other colleges, this reflects the changing employment patterns that follow the virtual collapse of heavy industry - in Greenock's case shipbuilding and engineering - which means that FE is increasingly about full-time vocational education rather than the part-time off-the-job apprentice training for which many were set up.
James Watt College has adapted better than most: it has about twice as many students as would be justified by its catchment area of Renfrew, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, and across the water, Argyll and Bute.
In the competition for students, the college's success reflects a pro-active (some other colleges might say, aggressive) recruitment drive, and one that, appropriately in a new market, has been backed by a new marketing department.
June Kelly was appointed director of marketing three years ago, and when she came to Greenock for interview she had great difficulty in finding the college, an eight-storey building which only a local authority education department could manage to render anonymous. Its name is now probably visible from Argyll, and both its name and logo are broadcast far beyond on carrier bags, t-shirts, bus adverts and balloons.
That is the fun side of marketing's stage one - establishing a corporate identity. Or as June Kelly says, repositioning the college from its identity as a local "tech" and raising its profile. This meant making every member of staff aware of his or her marketing responsibility, completely revising the nature and format of the written information that went out to potential students, and backing this effort with a heavy programme of events - the college roadshow goes not only to careers events all over Scotland, but to individual schools and community centres throughout the catchment area.
It has a calendar geared to the seasonal market, recruiting after prelim exam results and then again in June for school leavers, the start of the new school session for women returners, and so on.
It was the marketing department that created the post of information officer, and a unit which started with two people now has seven, having grown in step with the rest of the college staff. The marketing budget is now 10 times what it was when the college was run by Strathclyde Region, says Terry Davies.
All faculties now have a target-related philosophy for income and enrolment. "If they didn't see the relevance of marketing, June Kelly would be flogging a dead horse," he says.
James Watt was the first college to take advantage of a change in Scottish Office policy which allowed colleges to use buildings as assets for borrowing, and in August it will open a new Pounds 6m waterfront development.
This will provide a student residence, conference centre, leisure facilities and a new home for the business and management faculty. In three years even the building itself has had to learn that it is a marketing tool.
But at the same time, says Terry Davies, it has become a large community college, which not only has "probably the largest learning support faculty in Scotland" but is one of the biggest employers in central Greenock.