THE Government's new guidelines for further education, Opportunities for Everyone, have drawn a mixed response from the employers' organisation.
The Association of Scottish Colleges welcomes the overall effort to bring a number of separate policies and initiatives into a "strategic framework" for the first time.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, described "excellence, collaboration and increased access" as the three key challenges. The paper says it reflects the main policy and funding shifts "from indiscriminate competition to managed growth, on widening access and on promoting strategic planning".
Mike Webster, vice-chairman of the ASC and principal of Perth College, said: "The sector has been involved in lifelong learning and widening access ever since I have known it. We do very little else but work on these issues."
"Much of the document is motherhood and apple pie," Tom Kelly, the association's chief officer, said. "But it is none the less important that these things keep being said."
Not surprisingly, the ASC is less positive about the Government's demands for more collaboration or mergers, and for improvements in the quality of college managements. "We are left with the clear impression that there is a good case for rationalisation," Mr Kelly said. "But there is no indication of where and by whom."
The only merger application to land on the Secretary of State's desk so far, from Glasgow College of Building and Printing and the Glasgow College of Food Technology, was actually rejected. Ministers feared the effects on other colleges in the city, which might have lost students. But they also made clear that there is still scope for FE rationalisation in Glasgow.
Another two colleges, Dumfries and Galloway and the neighbouring Barony, have since announced merger plans. The Dumfries and Galloway board has given its approval, but Barony has put a decision on hold to see whether the Further Education Funding Council issues any guidance.
Mr Kelly also takes issue with the comments in the framework on college management. "The difference between the best and the worst is very considerable - unacceptably so," the paper states.
"There may be occasions when there is cause for concern," Mr Kelly said, "but to suggest there is a consistent pattern of very good and very bad management is not borne out by the evidence."
Mr Webster said: "There have been remarkably few cases of mismanagement and those that have occurred are over-hyped."
But Mr Kelly added: "We welcome the major policy shift from efficiency and value for money and very little else to one which also embraces lifelong learning, widening access and skills training. Much of that has been well trailed before, of course, so the framework is not perhaps the visionary statement of the future we might have expected."
WHAT THE FRAMEWORK SPELLS OUT FOR SCOTLAND'S COLLEGES
A summary of the strategic framework which includes a 45-point action plan, divided into seven sections People from every section of the community * Every college should conduct a systematic investigation into who does and does not participate in lifelong learning (including those who fail to follow up initial interest) and why, and what outreach initiatives have been most successful.
* Colleges need to carry out detailed checks on student drop-out rates and act on the results.
* The key role of colleges in supporting the Government's welfare to work policies should continue.
* Learning technologies should be used to lure more students into FE.
* Marketing efforts should be reviewed to ensure misconceptions about FE are cleared up and any barriers to access removed.
* Best practice in widening access should be swapped between colleges.
Wider access policies should have targets and annual reviews of progress.
* Links with community education and voluntary organisations are necessary to plan a coherent approach in working with people whose educational needs are high but whose participation is low.
An accessible network * Colleges should develop joint provision with schools, colleges and other agencies, and work with others to improve student guidance.
* Improved access can be delivered through adapting existing facilities as well as new buildings.
* Colleges should liaise with local authorities to create community learning plans.
Vocational and personal development * Every college needs up-to-date information on the learning needs of the local and national labour market, so provision is matched.
* Colleges should work together to provide for specialist interests and establish regional centres of excellence.
* Colleges must give priority to the collection, analysis and use of statistics on student retention, success, progression and destination.
* All colleges should teach core skills and personal development.
* Colleges should ensure students can progress to university, work and training.
* Every FE student should have a personal tutor who has contact with staff in community education and voluntary organisations.
Achieving the highest standards of governance and management * Vigilant compliance with the Nolan and Neill committees' requirements on openness and accountability in the use of public funds must not only be in place but adhered to.
* Each board should evaluate its own governance and set up management training where necessary.
* Boards should give their senior managers clear direction on strategy and then monitor their progress in implementation.
* There must be clear and regular reports on key aspects of college performance.
* A frank assessment of managers' performance and ability is required along with a regular audit of their skills.
Effective collaboration among colleges * College development planning should routinely involve neighbouring colleges in the geographical and sectoral senses, and there should be at least one annual meeting with one or more such colleges.
* Colleges should investigate joint purchasing of insurance, software, catering, estates management, marketing and management services.
* Joint staff development between neighbouring colleges should be explored.
colleges should initiate talks on rationalisation.
* Spreading best practice in joint ventures and collaboration should be explored.
Colleges and other agencies * Systematic collaboration should be undertaken by colleges with schools and education authorities, primarily but not solely about Higher Still.
* All colleges should have well-developed relationships with local higher education institutions.
* College boards should review their memberships and courses regularly to ensure they reflect local needs.
* Every college should be an active member of local access, training, learning and guidance partnerships so the Government's priorities of access, collaboration and excellence can be met.
Realising the vision * Quality improvement should be routine, especially in teaching, the learning environment, guidance and student achievement.
* College quality systems should be streamlined so there is one coherent set of standards, targets, indicators and independent verification, linked to financial incentives and recognition of outstanding achievement.