Tale of further education in two countries
The Scottish Government, in its response to the Review of Scottish Colleges, recognises the "crucial" and "pivotal" role colleges have in achieving its five strategic objectives to "create a wealthier and fairer, smarter, healthier, safer and stronger, and greener Scotland". Its thinking is firmly rooted in the concepts of lifelong learning and tertiary education, and the wide social as well as economic benefits they can deliver.
By contrast in England, colleges are seen as a component of the FE system, alongside private trainers and schools. The FE colleges are perceived to be in need of further reform to make them more "demand led", and have a specific brief to focus on skills and employability, fitting in with skills academies and sixth-form colleges.
These differences are perhaps a reflection of the context in which colleges in Scotland and England operate. Colleges in Scotland have continued to be seen as a community resource since incorporation in 1992. They frequently serve distinct and geographically-dispersed communities, for which they are realistically the only provider of lifelong learning opportunities.
Most English colleges after incorporation operated in an environment where competition with others was the primary driver and provision was determined by market forces. As a result, they frequently disengaged from their local communities, shaping their provision through commercial rather than public service considerations.
The costs of further education have been shared by the state, individuals, and employers in similar proportions in Scotland and England, but that is changing. While tuition fees for adults in Scotland are unchanged, in England they have increased from 25 per cent of the total cost in 2004 to 37.5 per cent and will rise to 50 per cent in 2010.
The range of courses funded by the Learning and Skills Council in England is also more narrowly focused on skills, restricting the scope for colleges to meet wider learning needs.
Only time will tell which is the more successful approach, but coming to Scotland from England feels very positive to me.
John Spencer is principal of Inverness College.