A MAJOR new database which could eventually become the "bible" for all decisions about further education in Scotland is to be launched in Stirling on Monday.
The result of a review of the supply and demand for FE, it took just six months' work by a team led by the Scottish Further Education Unit on behalf of the Scottish FE Funding Council. Specialist input came from Napier, Glasgow Caledonian and Stirling universities. The funding council regards it as a "flagship" report.
The 1,200-page document will be available on CD-Rom, allowing colleges and other users to manipulate the data to serve their needs. This will allow an analysis of local, regional and national economies, labour market demands, skill gaps, new course requirements, relevance of existing courses, study routes and duplication between colleges.
Information is so precise that it can indicate which streets and postcodes are best represented among the FE student population. The implications for marketing and recruitment are obvious.
The SFEU and the funding council believe it is the first attempt to draw together educational, social and economic data for FE on college, regional and national bases. The "regional" information draws its boundaries round each of the 13 local enterprise areas in southern Scotland and for the whole Highlands and Islands Enterprise network - quite a small number of colleges.
Andy Hawkins, head of strategic planning for the funding council for south and west Scotland, said this comprehensive picture of FE in Scotland, to be updated regularly, would be used "to set the context for colleges within a region - how they are working with the employed and the unemployed, what they provide for employers, whether their provision is flexible, if their resources are used effectively and efficiently".
The review was set up to discover whether there was a mismatch between the supply and demand for FE. The "adequacy" of the provision was defined in terms of several criteria, such as whether the needs of different student groups are being met across the full range from full-time advanced to part-time provision.
This reveals, for example, that part-time students on short courses, the focus of wider access policies who are least likely to be studying for a qualification, constituted 13 per cent of FE students in 1998-99. The four Fife colleges have 11 per cent from this group, but Fife College has just 3 per cent. The college, on the other hand, can point to many distance and open learning students that year - 40 per cent against the national average of 19 per cent.
Mr Hawkins said hat, using such information, the funding council "hopes to develop common approaches to local issues and whether colleges can be encouraged to collaborate rather than duplicate their work, without us being directional about it. We don't intend to embark on some kind of Stalinist central planning."
The funding council's initial response is likely to take the form of talks with regional groups of colleges to discuss gaps in provision, duplication, and their overall resources.
One key consideration will be the huge variation in the provision of courses which the supply and demand review has highlighted - the heavy concentration of part-time care courses in the Lothian area, for example, and very few in the Highlands and Islands. Information is also now available on the number of men and women taking courses in the various disciplines - 103,000 males and 122,000 females in 1998-99 - as well as their age groups. That, too, will be used to analyse whether FE is "adequate" in different parts of the country.
But the funding council is adamantly not on a "merger mission", Mr Hawkins made clear. The council will, however, be hammering home the message that course rationalisation and collaboration should be a key priority.
Mr Hawkins cited the joint engineering course run in one location by Fife and Glenrothes colleges with staff from both institutions.
The theme was picked up by Alasdair Morrison, the junior minister responsible for FE, who said last Friday in his first national speech in the job that he wanted to see more such partnerships. He commended another, the new biotechnology consortium led by Falkirk College which involves the Bell, James Watt and Fife colleges.
John Young, deputy director of the SFEU, said the study confirmed that "colleges overlap with virtually everybody - schools, universities, community education, the voluntary sector, private providers. To get a really complete picture of national provision, you would need to look at what all the others are doing in the areas of overlap. But what this study shows is that, while FE nationally is doing virtually everything, not all FE colleges individually are doing everything."
Mr Young and Mr Hawkins recommend that, while FE colleges should remain self-governing, there should be "stronger arrangements for planning and collaboration at local, regional and national level".
The SFEU will offer to brief FE boards of management on the data and how it can be used to help them discharge the more strategic, hands-on role demanded by the funding council in its management review of the colleges.