Further education in Scotland is entering a new and challenging phase. The incorporation of colleges in 1993 offered an autonomy and opportunity not previously experienced. Colleges had greater freedom over their own affairs and were better able to respond to the demands of the labour market. They began to operate in a more entrepreneurial way and to compete on the basis of quality and variety of courses offered.
Since then, much has been achieved. Enrolments have grown spectacularly, while costs have been reduced. At the same time, colleges have responded to local needs with an ever greater range of provision and there has been much innovation in methods of teaching and delivering programmes. All of this has been achieved without sacrificing quality.
We are fully committed to widening participation in and access to education and training. The colleges have a pivotal part to play in this, particularly in the context of specific initiatives such as the New Deal and the University for Industry. This Government wishes to open up the opportunity of post-school education for all and to tackle the problems of social exclusion, recognising the opportunities for personal growth and development.
Our manifesto committed us to developing a strategic framework for the FE sector in Scotland. This is part of our determination to move away from the free market approach of the early 1990s with its unrestricted growth and a climate of intense and often wasteful competition. Although that growth undoubtedly provided increased opportunities for many more students, the supply of further education courses was not best matched to demand, resulting in duplication of provision, excessive competition for enrolments and disincentives to co-operation. We want to see colleges regarding each other as partners rather than competitors.
There are already good examples of collaboration such as the Glasgow Community College group and the University of the Highlands and Islands project. We want to develop and extend initiatives like these. Scotland also has its own particular geographical challenges. The continued development of information technology links such as the Glasgow Telecolleges network, and of further outreach into rural and remote areas through the new FE centre to be built on the island of Benbecula, are both vital.
We are determined to raise standards and widen access. Excellence in both further and higher education will underpin Scotland's future economic success; indeed the further education route into higher education is already more evident here than in the rest of the UK. I am confident that the Scottish FE sector will to rise to the challenges of both the new millennium and the new parliament.
Brian Wilson is minister for education at the Scottish Office