Five years from now, Scotland will have fewer colleges and be sharing functions from finance to learning resources.
The recession will have "made it happen for us", thus proving that "every cloud has a silver lining", Ray Harris, the chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, told a vocational education conference in Glasgow last week.
The FE sector would be facing bigger pressures to take school leavers, adult returners, those leaving care, and the most vulnerable groups. "We will have to deliver more for less funding," he said.
The merger of the three Glasgow city centre colleges was a portent of things to come as the sector faced a 25 per cent reduction in its expenditure, Dr Harris continued.
"Too long, perhaps, we have `got by' with efficiency savings and, typically, voluntary redundancies," he said, predicting that such an approach would have to give way to more radical changes such as a single finance system, a single information system and a shared set of learning resources.
"Form should follow function," said Dr Harris.
He suggested that curriculum planning would take place in centres of excellence, which would be regional or even national, questioning why there should be "80 lecturers out there preparing the same units".
He declared: "We have got to get real here - and maybe the recession will do that."
By 2015, students educated under Curriculum for Excellence "will be expecting more and will be expecting us to ensure they get a job". But colleges would have to be more focused on where the jobs might come from - renewable energy and tourism, Dr Harris suggested.
And colleges would have to manipulate the curriculum more and deliver shorter courses to suit employers' and learners' needs.
"Delivery will be radically different, utilising, for example, the mobile technology so familiar to young people," he said.
Further predictions of radical change came from Paul Little, principal of the new City of Glasgow College, who foresaw higher education "hubs" within the FE sector.
"We want Scotland and the Scottish economy to have a powerhouse of skills development to carry our industries through the downturn, while simultaneously developing new skills and new thinking for businesses (such as green energy apprenticeships) to help them capitalise on the inevitable upturn," said Mr Little.
He also envisaged that, with demand for FE places surging (his institution had seen an increase of 40 per cent this year), the time was coming for colleges to have their own award-bearing powers with, for example, their own college degrees.
"The era of the three- or even two-year college degree is all but upon us," said Mr Little.
The conference, run by Holyrood Events, also heard that the "old certainties are vanishing".
Ewart Keep, director of the ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at Cardiff University, and an adviser to the Scottish Parliament's inquiry into lifelong learning, sought to bust three specific myths held by politicians:
- more skills simply equal more productivity;
- a knowledge-driven economy is just around the corner;
- and the demand for skills is rising sharply across the whole economy.
In fact, Britain lagged behind France and Germany in productivity because it had failed to invest in plant and equipment.
He advocated that Scotland follow the example of Finland, where there was public support for companies in their organisational strategies and workforce management, rather than simply subsidising research and development.
Research also suggested that the incidence of employer-provided training had been on the wane since 2000 and was now back to levels last seen in 1993, said Professor Keep.