Employers say a single voice speaks louder
The organisation which began as the Employers' Association in 1993 and whose original remit concerned national pay and conditions agreements and personnel issues has been reborn in the role of lobbyist, sector representative at strategic level, and promoter.
"After incorporation, many of the colleges were developing their own human resource functions and expertise which, together with the demise of national FE bargaining, meant that role was becoming less relevant and less appropriate, " Sarah Chisnall, the association's policy co-ordinator, says. "The decision was taken in February 1995 to provide a unified voice for dealing with government, training agencies and other relevant bodies."
The first ASC board met in September 1995 with all the 43 incorporated Scottish colleges in membership and with associate members, including the Scottish Further Education Unit. Despite this unified voice, however, the low profile of FE remains a preoccupation.
"People knew what schools and universities did but there was, and is, a lack of understanding about the role of FE colleges," Ms Chisnall said. "Yet FE offers opportunities for all types of quality learning at community level. It provides vocational and non vocational education, including more than 30 per cent of all higher education studied in Scotland which is twice as much as its English counterparts do. FE can also act as a stepping stone between all levels of education."
Making sure that all principals and all chairs have up to date information on policy issues is a priority, the importance of which was underlined by some of the weaknesses in boards of management highlighted by last week's MVA Consultancy report.
While all the Scottish FE colleges are represented, some contribute more than others. The association established a number of committees which are now being reviewed to ensure they work even more effectively in the future.
Consensus has never been easy on the employers' side, as would be expected with 43 member colleges who have been encouraged to think competitively rather than co-operatively. There was some difficulty, for example, in hammering out a common line on the Garrick committee's proposal that there should be a funding council for Scottish further education.
Ms Chisnall says they tackled the issue by using policy workshops. "This helped us come to the view that a funding council for the sector could be a good thing, might allow more openness and transparency than the current system of working through a division of the Scottish Office, and perhaps act more as a friend at court for us. We now have a majority view on a funding council for FE. People have concerns about how a council would affect the strategic direction of the sector - understandable fears.
"You will never get absolute unanimity on all issues. We try to work by consensus where possible and where there are differences, and only by a majority view where there are differences that cannot be put to one side. But unanimity is our aim."
The association has supported the Dearing recommendations to lift what was seen by the sector as the artificial cap on full time sub-degree places immediately and to lift the full-time cap on degree places over a period of two to three years.
"In our submission to the Dearing-Garrick reports we felt also that more emphasis should have been placed on the ASCETT targets," Ms Chisnall said. "We still feel that the emphasis in the reports was perhaps aimed at school leavers going to university."
But, as controversy rages over the costs of student support for university students (including the disproportionate burden of the Pounds 1,000 tuition fee on higher national students), it may be that the FE colleges will come to be seen as the cost-effective provider of higher education. FE's best promotional gambit is that it is cheaper and more local than higher education.
The colleges are now set to play a key role in another area of Government policy, helping to deliver the flagship welfare-to-work under Labour's new deal. Ms Chisnall says: "We hope there will be a level playing field for those who contribute to providing services, because the basis of the new deal is in a consortium of local partnerships rather than one organisation having the money channelled through them and then contracting out."
As for the future, the association says it has no ambitions to run or regulate FE. Ms Chisnall says: "We are here to make sure the interests of FE are being represented at the important national levels in Scotland, to raise awareness of what FE does, to ensure that senior politicians, ministers, civil servants and other influencers understand the sort of role FE can play in a whole range of different initiatives and, obviously, to try to get more resources for the sector."