One certain fact about the world of further education is that information technology will revolutionise it. Geographical boundaries are already being swept aside by satellites, cable networks and telephones linked to the computer.
Whither the recruitment row between school sixth-forms and colleges when the information superhighway cuts a swathe through the broad curriculum territories of both sectors? While Uptown College is bemoaning the loss of 40 or 50 students to Downtown comprehensive, even bigger education and training contracts are disappearing overseas. A Bristol college may think it has scooped a big contract, only to fiand it pipped to the post by the Latvian annexe of Manchester College of Arts and Technology.
Such competition may still be in the future; but not that far, as several principals and IT managers have testified. Colleges which were far-sighted a decade or more ago and developed open-learning and distance-learning packages have already sealed lucrative bids with former Commonwealth countries and the former Soviet bloc, often in excess of Pounds 1 million.
Some principals admitted in confidence during our survey that they misjudged the opportunities.
Those who prepare the ground now will be the winners. Some greeted the prospect with Biblical prophesies: To those who have, more will be given; to those who have not, what they have will be taken away.
For some colleges, such as Blackburn, the superhighway has already been built. Others will not feel its impact for some years to come.
But no one should ignore the power of the new technologies to solve much more immediate issues.
The TES survey gives cause for much optimism. Colleges are quick to exploit computers to expand services, create more opportunities for a wider community, including second-chance returners who failed at school, and make learning a more attractive task.
Plaudits must be given to the substantial minority of colleges which have identified the "liberation technology" and dramatically improved prospects for students with learning difficulties and disabilities.
And though many managers decry the workload imposed on them through the information demands of theFEFC, they know it is essential in the longer term.
Many uncertainties emerged, as indeed they must in such a broad-sweep survey. That staff are losing jobs to computers, albeit in a small way, must be a cause for concern. Is it a genuine shift for the better in a world of more independent learning? Is it a short-term expedient as the much-predicted shift away from lecturing and towards greater support and guidance of students involved in self-study? Or is it a sign of poor management?
Surveys are most useful when they show trends. One, which must cause concern, is the failure of many colleges to give a high priority to teacher training in IT. The most optimistic projection is that four out of ten are giving some training to all staff.
The best providers predict that failure to ensure a high level of computer literacy among staff and students will have two effects: short-term, students will drift; long-term, contracts will drift. To those who have notI But there is still room for some optimism. Many principals responding to the survey predicted that the training picture would appear far worse than it did.
But if there have been significant improvements, The TES survey shows that colleges still have a long way to go.
The UK as a whole needs well-trained lecturers and support staff.
Ian Nash is FE editor of The TES.