Geraldine Abrahams and Neil Munro report on an unlikely double helping of positive news. A computer network linking all of Glasgow's colleges has provided the catalyst for a closer strategic union for further education in the city
THE 10 Glasgow further education colleges are on the eve of a major collaborative venture which will bring them together in a ''strategic planning forum,'' to be operational by December.
Each college board has agreed to the move in principle. The finishing touches to the organisation and structure are expected to be put in place later this month.
The news will be particularly welcome to Brian Wilson, the education minister, as he rises today to address the annual conference of the Association of Scottish Colleges. Mr Wilson has been urging just such a step on the sector since coming in to office last year.
Tom Wilson, principal of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing, a spokesman for the forum, commented: "To be effective, to provide the best possible solutions to the problems of any city and in particular our city, we need to work with all of our partners.
"We still have to be those lean machines, but there is a realisation that there are many areas where we can be more effective if we collaborate."
The forum expects a Scottish Office contribution towards administrative and staffing costs. Ministers have already set pound;2 million aside for a "strategic initiatives fund" for such developments. With a quarter of FE colleges based in Glasgow, the city will anticipate at least pound;500,000 of that sum.
Professor Wilson believes that "one clearly articulated message will perhaps be heard better and will enable us to communicate more effectively with the wider world. There are collaborative talks going on all over Scotland but I have no doubt that the Glasgow arrangements are further developed than elsewhere."
The new organisation will replace the Glasgow Community Colleges Group, which operated with a complex structure made up of the five inner and five outer-city colleges.
College principals envisage it will also have new powers including approval of full-time college courses throughout the city, developing a common estates strategy and making collective bids for capital funding to the Scottish Office.
One FE observer commented: "Did this not used to be called Strathclyde?" The catalyst for a closer FE relationship in the city is the Glasgow Telecolleges Network (GTN). It links the 10 colleges through a high speed broadband ATM network, the equivalent of 11 full colour television channels operating simultaneously.
Delivery across the network is 155 megabytes per second (the English rival enjoys a statelier pace of 3 megs a second).
This ground-breaking partnership claims to be the provider of the fastest superhighway dedicated to education and training in Europe, and the colleges believe it puts the city at the leading edge of the Government's University for Industry and the National Grid for Learning.
Other partners in the venture are the Glasgow Development Agency, UKERNA (the UK body that looks after the university network), Glasgow City Council, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology (SCET) and the Scottish Office. Although not a member of the committee, the Strathclyde European Partnership is also a major funder.
Professor Wilson of the GCBP, who chairs the network's executive committee, states: "Each college has exactly the same high level of service, with immediate access to the Internet, video-conferencing across the colleges, the ability to use common learning materials, network support, and all at costs below what we were paying for the crude service through a high-powered ISDN phone line.
"There are enormous benefits from us all working together. GTN is wholly collaborative which does not mean that two colleges next to each other would not be trying to attract the same students. But as far as GTN is concerned, no matter where the student goes he or she would have access to the wide network."
Students in one college will increasingly be able to go in the evening to a nearby college and open their own files there, allowing them to complete homework without having to travel.
Teaching across the colleges could also result in the freeing of more time for lecturers to use in supporting students in other ways. Each college has committed to taking high speed intra-networks.
Jack Davidson of SCET, is the network manager for GTN, described it as "a very powerful network that fans out from the College of Building and Printing to nine other colleges across the city.
"Each of those colleges in turn has the power to fan out again. The potential for the electronic link-up is enormous.
"It would be nice to put large databases over on GTN. Over the next two years the museums and libraries will be coming on board and, given the number of artefacts at the art galleries that cannot be shown to the public for example, there may be a project where they could be electronically shown to the city."
Professor Wilson has additional ambitions: "We are considering taking the network into the key industrial sites in Glasgow which means that, at a relatively cheap cost, a small or medium sized enterprise in particular could link into GTN and we could deliver right to the workplace." The idea has the backing of the STUC. Equality of service has been vital to the success of the GTN and to winning commitment from the colleges Ian Graham, principal of John Wheatley College and a trenchant critic of recent developments in FE, praised the consortium approach "which has resulted in probably the most advanced system in further education in Europe."
John Wheatley is linking up with five local libraries to run remote services to the public via video-conferencing links. And Cardonald College has been involved in the GOMA Project which is digitising the Gallery of Modern Art collection. This will provide access initially for students involved in the 10 GTN colleges, hopefully expanding it to schools and the wider community.
Not only that but it is planned to be a vehicle for emerging artists to put their own works onto the network. "This will provide a kind of salon culture in keeping with GOMA as a living gallery," according to Alan McCusker-Thomson, course leader in television, operations and production at Cardonald.
"Artists will also be visited in their studios and, using video-conferencing, students within GTN will be able to ask questions of them and get a flavour of the artist," he said.
Professor Wilson says this model of collaboration extended to the new forum should provide real purchasing power, where the 10 are buying collectively.
"Hopefully, this will put us in a better position to command the attention of our funding masters," he adds.