FE confronts its failings

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Hair shirts are the order of the day in further education. The second report commissioned from consultants Alex Neill and Roger Mullins (page 28) by the Association of Scottish Colleges and Scottish Enterprise has uncomfortable messages for the principals and college board chairmen who comprise the driving force of the ASC. Business links at home and abroad are still not good enough. The training message is still not penetrating deeply enough, especially among small companies. Reliance on private providers of training, as opposed to the colleges, is much greater than the FE sector likes to imagine.

Principals live in the entrepreneurial world. They tell their staffs that money does not grow on Government trees and must be earned by recruiting students, putting on relevant courses and forging links with potential sources of revenue. The reluctance of some lecturers to accept the new dogmas is bound to be reinforced when, it appears, the message is not being sufficiently heeded at institutional level, or even across the FE sector as a whole. But at least college leaders are not burying their head in the sand. They are willing to pay researchers to bring the bad news.

The worst statistic is that in 1994-95 only 4 per cent of colleges' income came from sources other than the Scottish Office. In higher education such reliance on state funding would have led to mass resignations by principals if not to institutional bankruptcy. Although research contracts have long brought in healthy millions for universities, it is further education that has traditionally aligned itself with local industry and commerce. The benefits in terms of training and consultancy contracts still appear "modest", to use the report's description.

Initiatives to bring improvement abound. Two happen to be topical. Borders College is conscious that local markets, although essential to its existence, are necessarily limited. It is opening an office in Edinburgh to seek new commercial business and to make existing links easier. Asked how the three city colleges are likely to react, Borders says that there is business available for everyone and already non-local companies have been attracted to its portfolio of services.

Next week six of the larger and more ambitious colleges will launch the self-styled Scottish Polytechnics Group in Brussels. The gesture is intended to show European aspirations and commitment. It may be greeted with raised eyebrows or wry smiles in colleges that see salvation closer to home. But as well as being relevant and nitty-gritty, further education needs to demonstrate flair and style. Only then will 96 per cent dependence on government be reduced.

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