The battle for students in the south-west of Scotland has led to fears of too much competition for too little business.
Competition may have been an inevitable result of the incorporation of colleges in 1993, but five years on there are strong signs of collaboration, not only among the colleges themselves but also with other institutions.
The focus has been on increasing access, and one manifestation of that level of attention to the marketplace has been the provision outwith original college campuses. Today most Scottish colleges are multi-centred or split-sited.
A clear example is in the south-west. But recent proposals to build another FE college in North Ayrshire at a time when some colleges are merging have created speculation of increased competition in areas where there is already provision. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, whose constituency covers the area, has warned against excessive competition for available resources and students.
There are, however, plenty of examples of successful collaborative projects in the south-west and evidence of Scottish Office support. In collaboration with Dumfries and Galloway College, Paisley University is in its second year of offering full-time higher education programmes to students at the FE college, seeing the venture as a means of helping to fulfil its aim of becoming a regional university.
"With Dumfries and Galloway College, we deliver a range of combined award programmes where students major, for example, in computing, business administration, accounting and construction management, generally joining the programme in the third year, usually after completing HNDs," Morag Arnott, depute director of corporate communications at Paisley University, said.
"The University of Glasgow also has plans for a large investment at the Dumfries site, and we are working together on a joint development which we have put forward to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council which means that we would share joint facilities like the library and IT."
The former Crichton hospital site has been earmarked for the university of the south-west. The hope is for a campus by 2001, with provision offered by a number of universities including Glasgow, Paisley, Napier and the Open University.
Dumfries is Paisley University's most ambitious development of a geographically separate campus, although it has links with Kilmarnock College, Stow College in Glasgow, Falkirk and Reid Kerr in its own hometown. The Craigie campus in Ayr, formerly the college of education, is shared with the local FE college, which has led to combined development of courses by the two institutions.
But Ms Arnott says there is still a missing link in the relationship between universities and colleges. "The universities have put a lot of work and investment into giving credit rating to what would be seen as higher education qualifications from the further education sector. So if someone studied for one semester before moving on, we would give them a semester credit, 60 SCOTCAT credit points, but at the moment the Scottish Qualifications Authority has no means of using that credit for transfer into one of its main qualifications."
If links between FE and higher education are strong in south-west Scotland, so are those among colleges themselves. Kilmarnock College, for example, has seven sites throughout Ayrshire providing a wide variety of courses. There are also links with several universities and a strategic agreement with Ayr College to plan and deliver courses.
In addition there are European projects with nine other colleges. A mobile learning centre will deliver training in rural areas and the college has been involved in video conferencing with Greenwich Caledonian, of Prestwick.
Kilmarnock is typical of colleges striving to broaden their scope. So there is no doubt that the plans for a new college at Kilwinning outlined in a report by Tom McCool, former head of the Scottish Vocational Education Council, and broadly based on a proposal by James Watt College in Greenock, have left them all somewhat nervous.
Last November Brian Wilson asked North Ayrshire Council to set up discussions to forward FE plans for the area "with a view to securing complementarity of provision rather than competition between providers". A group representing central and local government, local enterprise companies and colleges has been set up to oversee developments.
The minister's intervention should have served to calm fears but there is still wariness. Kilmarnock principal Mick Roebuck said: "With about 50 per cent of our students coming from North Ayrshire we are concerned that the proposed solution will impact in terms of the viability of certain courses as well as staff numbers. A worst case scenario would be that if all the students who come to Kilmarnock went to Kilwinning.
"We could lose about pound;1 million in grant and aid and that would impact on around 25 academic staff and 14 support staff. We have never disagreed that there has been a need for provision in that area but we have been concerned with the way that it has been done."
A paper prepared last week for the corporate strategies committee - the overseeing body - may have gone some way to allaying his fears. Summing up the proposals and seeking clarification from the Education Minister on some points, it reiterated the support for the establishment by James Watt of a North Ayrshire college at Kilwinning and future development of FE in the "three towns area", as that part of Ayrshire is known.
The paper suggested that James Watt and Kilmarnock should bring forward proposals. Paisley University and the Association of Scottish Colleges, have also been consulted on the provisional curriculum for the new college.
The ASC has welcomed the development in helping FE meet community, employer and individual needs in the area, but Bob Kay, the association's chairman, warned: "We are concerned about where the money is to come from. These types of projects - which may have capital backing and input - still require significant recurrent funding. There should be no new capacity without new funding and we are not yet clear where this will come from."