IN his last message to the further education sector as the responsible minister, Henry McLeish, the former Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, reiterated the Scottish Executive's view that FE "boosts the competitiveness
of Scotland, its businesses and people".
In the foreword to the annual FE report to Parliament, Mr McLeish writes that learning throughout life is an investment both for the individual and the nation, and he pledged to find the necessary resources.
The report, which is for 1999, points to the additional pound;40 million ploughed into the 47 colleges last year out of the extra pound;214 million allocated over three years in the Treasury's first comprehensive spending review.
The second three-year allocation will take the Government's grant to the FE funding council to pound;436 million by 2003-04, and most of this will be distributed to the colleges.
These commitments, partly intended to create an extra 40,000 student places by 2002 (8,000 of them set for 1999), will now be inherited by Wendy Alexander, Mr McLeish's successor.
Figures show that colleges are making a stronger contribution to lifelong learning, with the number of enrolments of students aged 25 or over increasing from 48 per cent in 1993-94 to 55 per cent in 1998-99. Conversely the proportion of 19 to 24-year-olds attending colleges fell from 24 per cent to 18 per cent.
Overwhelmingly, students study part-time, accounting for 300,000 of the 421,556 enrolments in 1999.
The potential for colleges to recruit more students, particularly from disadvantaged areas, was strenghtened by a Napier University study which reveals that 63 per cent of the Scottish population live within four miles of a college, while 77 per cent of people from deprived areas are within a four mile radius.
Although the extra funding was welcomed, there is nolet-up in the worries expressed about the financial health of the sector, with the parliamentary audit committee reporting in February this year that the position of 13 colleges was causing concern.
he funding council, which did not assume its full responsibilities until July last year, will have to report to the Parliament by December on the progress made on financial recovery plans.
Higher Still, largely concentrated in schools, was also introduced into colleges in the past year. The report notes without comment that the Scottish Qualifications Authority's computer-based awards processing system became operational "although there were a number of initial technical difficulties".
Among the other key developments in the past year were major new building programmes for West Lothian, James Watt (Kilwinning campus in North Ayrshire was officially opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on Wednesday) and John Wheatley colleges, as well as new learning centres opened in Benbecula, Haddington and the Argyll islands.
A frenetic year also saw the designation of Bell College as a higher education institution, the announcement of an extra pound;3 million for childcare costs following the settlement on tuition fees, the acceptance of most of the Beattie committee's recommendations on supporting the post-school needs of vulnerable 16 to 24-year-olds, and the approval of Stirling University and Northern College to offer the FE teaching qualification in addition to the Jordanhill School of FE.
Another host of extraneous initiatives are also continuing to have an impact - the Scottish University for Industry, individual learning accounts, social inclusion policies, the adult literacy drive, the work of the knowledge economy task force which was chaired by Mr McLeish and the project to establish a University of the Highlands and Islands.