The Education Minister came under fire at the weekend over his approval for an FE college in his constituency. The annual conference of the Scottish Further and Higher Education Association heard Brian Wilson's move likened to the decision by Michael Forsyth, as Secretary of State, to give Falkirk College the go-ahead for a Pounds 3.5 million privately funded FE centre in his Stirling constituency.
The attack on the establishment of an FE presence in Kilwinning, North Ayrshire, a Pounds 7 million project which James Watt College will build with the help of private investment and European funds, was led by Ken Johnson, a former SFHEA president. Mr Johnson lectures at Glasgow College of Food Technology which is in merger talks with Glasgow College of Building and Printing.
It was "beyond belief" that a college should be opened in Kilwinning within travelling distance of other FE centres which could be threatened with a loss of students, Mr Johnson said. This was at a time when lecturers were being denied pay rises, colleges were unable to carry out repairs, and there was a lack of funding for computer equipment to deliver new technology.
These remarks reflected the general tenor of the conference, which did not spare either the Scottish Office or college managements. If Labour had a honeymoon period in the colleges, it is certainly over now.
Eric Smith, the SFHEA's general secretary, said: "The new Labour strategy seems to be if the previous government planned it, we'll rubber-stamp it. If it didn't, we can't afford it." The problems remained the same: inadequately paid staff, funding problems, casualisation of jobs, unions sidelined.
Delegates called on Mr Wilson to monitor the operation of private agencies used by colleges to recruit staff who were being denied employment rights.