Where there is light...
ALTHOUGH HIS appointment was a surprise, John McClelland was, in retrospect, a natural choice when ministers were casting around for someone to be the first chairman of the Scottish Funding Council in 2005.
Well known, in some circles at least, as a former chairman of Rangers, where he has been a member of the board since 2000, the 62-year-old businessman had obvious credentials to preside over the disbursement of government cash to colleges and universities.
His experience in the private and public sectors is extensive, allied to which he inhabits the world of technology with ease. He sat on the former funding council for higher education, where he headed its quality assessment committee, and he has also chaired Renfrew-shire Enterprise Company.
Mr McClelland's day jobs have included an impressive clutch of top posts - a vice-president of IBM's worldwide operations, senior vice-president of Digital, and global chief industrial officer with electronics giant Philips.
With such a hard-edged, if not cutting edge, background, the SFC chair can be expected to take a fairly robust view of any shortcomings he might come across in the further or higher education sectors.
Mr McClelland's experience was entirely in HE before he had to embrace further education, but he leaves nobody in any doubt that he became impressed with the work of colleges very quickly - with their performance and their role. As he likes to say: "If you drive into any Scottish town at night, no matter where it is, there are only three places where the lights are on - the police station, the fire station and the local college.
"They're there morning and night. They are attuned to the needs of their communities and of employers, and they cover the full range from vocational courses to degrees. I hadn't really grasped how fundamental they are until I took on this role."
Mr McClelland believes the FE sector has come through a period of financial and industrial turmoil fighting fit, the few exceptions serving to underline the point. He sees colleges as the local recruitment points for learning, not just for those who want to take advantage of what they have to offer but also for those who want to advance into higher education.
He also wants to encourage colleges to make a specific contribution to knowledge transfer, for which the SFC has earmarked pound;2 million for the first time in the next academic session. This is a cause close to his heart, for Mr McClelland's current day job as chairman of Technology Ventures Scotland is precisely in this area, to pick commercial winners from scientific and technological research.
"One of Scotland's biggest problems has been the failure to build innovation and skills, bringing new products to the market," he says.
"Colleges have a key role in helping the 255,000 companies in Scotland with fewer than nine employees, which they are well placed to do because they are local."
From his business perspective, Mr McClelland sees colleges now as "fleet of foot" in responding to all those varied needs. He even praises their "entrepreneurial" spirit, which is certainly a tribute coming from him although it will no doubt strike all the wrong notes with the many union critics of incorporation.
But he notes the proof of the pudding - the last survey showed that 82 per cent of workplaces think college leavers are well prepared for work and 92 per cent of students expressed satisfaction with their time at college.
Mr McClelland is not likely to upset apple-carts, and there will not be any sudden shifts in areas such as mergers, either within further education or between FE and HE - unless the new Scottish Executive decrees it.
But the chairman does envisage more "blurring of the edges" between the two sectors, as colleges and universities increasingly share facilities, resources and the curriculum. This is evident in developments at the Crichton campus in Dumfries where the local college will rub shoulders with universities, in Galashiels where the college and Heriot Watt University will work out of the same site and, most ambitiously, in Glasgow where the four city centre colleges will combine in a pound;300 million make-over and work closely with the universities.
Mr McClelland accentuates the positive from his experience of FE so far.
"The fact that we expect colleges to be able to do all of these things is an indication that it's a strong sector, capable of taking on these ambitious roles. There is undoubtedly growing self-confidence in the sector."