United they will stand
Scotland will have another further education college if the Scottish Funding Council translates words into funds.
The council has agreed in principle to support a new college for the west Highlands "to provide a more efficient and effective way of delivering further education in this part of Scotland".
Argyll, Lochaber, and Skye and Wester Ross colleges, which are independent, have agreed to merge as a first step towards creating a new West Highland College, which the SFC hopes to fund in due course.
An SFC spokesperson said: "The merger and the creation of a fundable body will not affect the supply of provision which had already been planned - but it will give it more local control.
Beginning in 2008-09, the council planned to have 450 full-time student places in the three colleges over three years. Once West Highland College is formed, and if it is supported through the funding council, it will have the equivalent of 750 full-time student places. There will, however, be many more students than that, who will be part-time or on short courses.
The funding council has given no indication of how much it will give the new college. But this year, the three existing colleges were allocated 9,000 weighted student units of measurement (WSUMS - the measure which calculates student activity and therefore funding) under the funding formula. This equates to around Pounds 1.8 million.
The college will serve remote and scattered areas, which have not been well served for further education in the past. It will become part of the college network which makes up the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, working in close partnership with Inverness and Thurso-based North Highland colleges. It means people in the area will have access to a range of higher education courses, from higher national through to postgraduate level.
Mark Batho, chief executive of the SFC, said: "This is a chance to create a college which will reflect the needs of the West Highlands and bring greater coherence to our provision in the area."
Wilma Campbell, chair of Argyll College, said it would use its new status to "achieve the equity of tertiary education provision to which the people of the west Highlands have aspired and are entitled".
Michael Foxley, chair of Lochaber College, said: "United, we will be a much stronger voice for our communities, which will allow us to develop and extend more learning opportunities."
Gordon Bushnell, chair of Skye and Wester Ross College, said he looked forward to collaboration aimed at "making learning more accessible in remote communities."
Robert Muir, Highlands and Islands Enterprise area manager for Lochaber, Skye and Wester Ross, commented: "This is a major step forward in the provision of further and higher education in the area, and our hope is that young people will have easier access to courses closer to home.