THE FIRST question I asked myself when I heard that Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, was seeking widespread views on whether the University of the Highlands and Islands should become part of the higher education sector was: is this the beginning of the end for FE?
Following on from the overlapping councils for funding FE and HE, it is deeply ironic that the last act of a recently established company set up to generate access to new learning opportunities for the Highlands and Islands region and beyond - the appropriately named UHI - which owes its existence to lavish funding from the FE cake should be to cut and run for a place in the HE sun and university designation.
Let's be quite frank, the UHI Project - that's what it was before it became a company - was an excellent concept. It fostered collaboration, it aimed to break down the barriers of geography, it put the student at the heart of its mission and it focused on online solutions to these challenges. That's why it captured the imagination of two governments and 13 educational institutions, including eight FE colleges. This is no mean feat. Something akin to herding cats. Sir Graham Hills, the former Strathclyde University principal who masterminded its early development, is to be congratulated for turning his brainchild into a reality. It deserves to succeed.
We must never forget that such radical solutions, especially with plush new buildings, don't come cheap. Some best-value comparisons should be made before the new ministers decide on the future of UHI. The Glasgow Telecolleges Network, for example - equally adventurous, some may even say more so - has been at least 10 times less expensive to develop and is 100 times faster in terms of online delivery.
Yet in this year's funding round the 10 Glasgow colleges were trimmed by about pound;500,000 in terms of IT allocations. The UHI colleges were unaffected by this real cut. Indeed they might have anticipated further support. This is the opposite of best value.
Three basic questions must be answered. First, will the funds transfer from FE to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to support UHI and its cumbersome management and administration? Second, is it administratively feasible for the FE colleges which were part of the original project to continue to seek FE funding for HE work which is not UHI-related? Third, will the proposal impact on HE capping or, for that matter, student funding?
There is a fourth question which is perhaps rhetorical. The newly established Scottish FE Funding Council has three separate challenge budgets for collaboration, for "cutting edge" innovation and for provision in new areas. Would anyone care to bet me that these budgets of pound;1 million each have not already been partly earmarked for UHI? Anyway, UHI deserves to work and I'll vote for university designation.
Over the coming weeks, after all, voting will be at the forefront of all our minds. I believe that irrespective of which party or coalition succeeds, FE is in a win-win situation. Mrs Liddell has seen through her predecessor Brian Wilson's laudable crusade. The sector has received a settlement that beats any other public sector sub-service in Scotland. We have a strategic framework and an agenda for action which we can all endorse with zeal and enthusiasm. If we don't I'm quite sure the funding council will "disimburse" the funds (now there's a thought to make your eyes water).
We lie at the heart of new Labour's plans for social inclusion, community learning and planning, competitiveness through skills development and opportunities and choices for young people.
Even if Holyrood reflects a different balance of power to what we have come to expect we might look forward to such challenges and opportunities as tax-related increases in funding, alternative approaches to governance, including perhaps a return to local authority control, and possible mass participation through voucher schemes. Even student grants might make a comeback.
To bastardise an old Scottish Presbyterian phrase - we should all be singing from the same spreadsheet. I'm not quite saying "Things Can Only Get Better" - I've danced to that tune before. What I am saying is that we stand not at the beginning of the end for FE merely the end of the beginning.
Graeme Hyslop is principal of Langside College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity. His e-mail address is aghyslop@ langside.ac.uk.