The further education leadership reacted with astonishment, quickly followed by delight, to the news that the 'Cinderella' sector is to receive an extra #163;214 million over the next three years.
The cash marks a major achievement for the lobbying talents of the Association of Scottish Colleges, which has been at the receiving end of mutterings from some of the larger colleges about its effectiveness. Aberdeen and James Watt colleges have already pulled out of the association.
The extra cash also fulfils the Education Minister's determination to put "serious money" into FE, recognising that many of the Government's initiatives such as the welfare-to-work programme, lifelong learning, training opportunities for lone parents and Higher Still all require a more buoyant FE sector.
"We have delivered for FE on a spectacular scale," Mr Wilson said this week.
Tom Kelly, the association' s chief officer, praised "the Government's recognition of the importance of FE and what it can deliver". Mr Kelly was particularly impressed that the Government had earmarked cash to reverse college underfunding, and said that "getting the baseline right" was essential if the Government's wider access policy is to be sustained.
Criticism by colleges of their inability to plan ahead because of year-on-year grant allocations have also been addressed by the adoption of a three-year spending cycle. "The break away from annuality is wonderful news," Mr Kelly said.
FE has also been rewarded for its "significant efficiency gains" in driving down costs and stepping up productivity in recent years, the cause of considerable industrial unrest as jobs were lost. The efficiency improvement in 1996-97 was 10 per cent and Mr Wilson announced the target would be restricted to 1 per cent for the sector as a whole next year, or just over #163;3 million.
Colleges will receive #163;40 million as a first instalment next year, a real terms increase of more than 10 per cent.
The #163;214 million additional cash is almost as much as the entire Scottish Office grant allocation of nearly #163;290 million. The extra consists of:
* #163;102 million to increase student numbers by 40,000 over the three years in line with the Prime Minister's pledge to create 500,000 new places in further and higher education throughout the UK.
* #163;56 million "to stabilise the financial position of the sector" and to restrict required efficiency improvements to 1 per cent in 1999-2000.
* #163;27 million "to reverse the downward spiral of capital investment in recent years", including a quicker assault on health and safety deficiencies;
* #163;29 million for information technology, also intended to increase student numbers through distance learning and linking colleges with businesses.