FE COLLEGES will face a significant change in direction following the Government's review of the enterprise network, Henry McLeish, the enterprise and lifelong learning minister, made clear last week. They must be "the drivers of an enterprise and learning network in every locality across Scotland," he said.
After announcing the 9 per cent rise in FE funding for 2000-01 (TESS March 31), Mr McLeish told a press conference: "I am looking for the whole further education sector to adopt a more pro-
active role in local and regional economic development and regeneration.
"Colleges should be driving economic change rather than just participating. I want to see every college in Scotland strengthen partnerships with business, enterprise companies and local councils.
"I also want every college to make greater efforts to foster and develop an entrepreneurial spirit among their students and trainees."
Mr McLeish told the press later: "Local enterprise companies and local councils must now appreciate that the knowledge revolution and lifelong learning is as important as business and the economic agenda." At present, he added, learning was complementary to the work of LECs when it should be at the core.
This is in line with the evidence given by the minister to the Parliament's enterprise and lifelong learning committee. Mr McLeish told the MSPs that "in the past local enterprise companies have been business-led; perhaps they should now be lifelong learning-led." Lifelong learning was "the big idea" for the next decade, he added. Signalling one change in attitude, Scottish Enterprise has already decided that colleges should in future be represented on LEC boards.
The minister's views were welcomed by Professor John Sizer, chief executive of the Scottish urther Education Funding Council. "A successful college at the heart of an innovative and entrepreneurial region will generate benefits all round."
Colleges, which relate to virtually every community in Scotland, are perfectly placed to serve jobs investment, develop skills and plug skill gaps, and advance lifelong learning, he said. Successful colleges would also mean better pay and conditions for staff.
The colleges have long pointed out that not only can they serve business but that they also are businesses in their own right, and in some areas the biggest local employer. The Association of Scottish Colleges therefore welcomed Mr McLeish's announcement as a vote of confidence for the ability of FE to become a key local economic development partner.
But Robert Kay, the ASC chairman, said it was still unclear whether FE was financially capable of meeting the stiff challenges presented by recruitment of 16,000 extra disadvantaged students this year and delivering on the skills agenda for the knowledge economy. "It is difficult to square the circle of responding to exceptional, and inevitably more costly, needs of students with an insistence on standards and reducing unit costs," Mr Kay said.
"Quality means choice and that means a wider range of courses and facilities for a wider range of students. More allowance will be needed for the varied circumstances and local needs that each college has to address."
Mr McLeish has already made clear, in his letter to the funding council confirming the extra pound;28 million for FE, that he expected it to take greater account of more expensive students in the review of the funding formula, which the council is carrying out and which determines the all-important slice of the cake that each college receives.