THE APPEARANCE of hard cash has now become almost an established feature at the annual conference of Scotland's further education principals and board chairs. This is the third year in succession that a minister pulled out his purse in front of the Association of Scottish Colleges, which met last week in Bellshill.
Henry McLeish, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, unveiled an extra pound;10 million to upgrade college buildings. Anticipating criticism, he made it clear it was "new money, not previously announced". Along with the pound;6m extra for FE students' childcare costs, it means the three-year tally from the comprehensive spending review has gone up from pound;214m to pound;230m.
Mr McLeish acknowledged that the extra sum, which is on top of the pound;16m already allocated by the funding council, would do no more than help colleges "make a start" on redressing years of capital underinvestment. "I've been in colleges where, quite frankly, the only solution would be to knock them down," he said.
The money is intended specifically for improving physical access to buildings for students with special needs, although it can also be used for general modernisation of the FE estate.
College leaders clearly welcomed the news, although it is thought to be some way short of the capital shortfall identified in an estates survey carried out by the funding council. Bob Beattie, the council's chairman, also warned that the additional millions from the comprehensive spending review amounted to "patching the ship so we're no longer sinking". Many colleges sill had to take difficult decisions to get back on the right financial track, Mr Beattie added.
Mr McLeish said he expected "payback for the investment". He added: "Those funds are not by way of a reward for past achievements or compensation for years of underfunding. They are all earmarked for a widening access agenda, and to bring about an overdue modernisation of the sector and a necessary improvement in its financial stability."
One efficiency which the Minister signalled more clearly than before is a rationalisation of colleges, although he said he did not envisage "shotgun weddings". He has, however, insisted on a report from the funding council by the end of the year on how it sees "the shape and structure" of the sector. "The most efficient pattern of supply cannot be that which was dictated largely by the former pattern of Scottish local authorities," Mr McLeish said.
He reiterated his strong support for FE to take centre stage in the Government's efforts to widen access to lifelong learning, social justice and economic participation. The Minister hinted that he would shortly announce his acceptance of the recommendation by the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee for local economic forums to be established across Scotland, in which colleges would be represented.
Mr McLeish said he was keen that the colleges play a key part in the drive to tackle the "national scandal" of adult illiteracy. Some of the 40,000 extra student places for FE would be reserved for those needing support with basic skills.