The management of further education colleges has always been a challenge, but no one doubts demands have grown since incorporation in 1993.
Managers must now juggle with business and academic imperatives. They must strive for growth alongside greater efficiency in unit costs, manage ambiguity and inspire confidence in a kaleidoscope of stakeholders, and still manage to sleep at night.
To help prepare managers for these formidable roles, Stirling University and the Scottish Further Education Unit last year launched a tertiary level management training initiative.
The partnership programme, leading to a postgraduate certificate in management for tertiary education, relies on college principals, senior managers, Stirling's institute of education and external management consultants.
Extensive research and consultation preceded the programme which provides for a flexible modular framework. There is a mixture of seminars, supported distance learning, practical work-based assignments and video conferencing. The programme is accredited by the university.
The first intake last year comprised 11 staff from colleges across Scotland. After graduation atypical comment was that the programme had "broadened awareness and understanding of the live issues facing colleagues from different colleges".
Professor Mike Osborne, who directs the course for the partnership, says:
"We have a high quality programme for anyone who wishes to improve their professional knowledge and skills. The programme sets a new standard for management training in the sector."
This year 17 recruits have completed their first module. Some of last year's graduates have enrolled for Stirling's specially developed Masters in Education (Management in Tertiary Education). This course includes research strategies, managing the education environment, and a dissertation.
Participants may also choose modules from other masters-level courses, and a number of modules can be delivered using the web.
Jim Ross, SFEU's principal consultant for these programmes, is certain that FE managers welcome initiatives that help build their competence. "They want development opportunities that are practical, challenging and grounded in the reality of life in education. Our partnership with the university demonstrates what can be achieved through collaboration."
The certificate in management for tertiary education is the first in a number of ventures into the FE world for the university. A short course on using digital media in teaching has started and from September it will offer a teacher qualification in FE, approved by the General Teaching Council.
The TQFE, which involves collaboration with a number of colleges, contains features common to the existing programme for initial secondary education, and to the institute's scheme for teacher fellows, which is given an FE slant.
Jim Ross has wide experience of human resources in the private sector and can judge how well FE managers are doing against their industry counterparts. He says: "College managers have had an incredibly steep learning curve over the past few years, but many of them would shine wherever they worked.
"Our job is to make sure that the overall standard continues to rise. The new managerial development programmes we are putting in place reflect best practice across all sectors."
Margaret Teven is marketing and communications co-ordinator for the Scottish Further Education Unit