Who, where and should we take sandwiches?
Over the past year or so, the principals' forum of the Association of Scottish Colleges has applied some of its considerable energy to developing a vision for the sector. The first step in this was to reflect on the foundation on which the future could be built by considering the work of the sector in the past and at present.
Looking to the past confirmed the impressive progress that has been achieved since incorporation. It was possible to point to a huge increase in the sector's contribution to learning in Scotland, reflected, for example, by a leap forward from engaging with 1 in 24 of the population in 1993 to 1 in 10 in 2003.
Reflection on the present highlighted the extent of the current contribution of colleges to Scotland's development - to economic development and business growth; to social development and social inclusion; and, fundamental to both of these, to the growth and development of individuals.
Past and present successes indicate strongly that colleges can look to the future with confidence. In doing this and in beginning to establish a more detailed vision for the sector, it is worth reflecting on what Arnold Brown suggests are the three fundamental questions in life. These are: who are we, where are we going and . . . should we take sandwiches? I'll leave you to decide the answer to the third question and confine myself to the first two. Increasingly, it is possible to describe who we are firmly and clearly. Colleges are the central players in and contributors to lifelong learning in Scotland. And I describe us as central, not in a narrow competitive sense (as in we are better, bigger or better looking than other sectors), but in a positive sense.
We are central as a result of the range and depth of our contribution and of our inclination to promiscuity - to engaging in a wide range of partnerships. The sector works closely and productively with employers, schools, the voluntary sector, local authorities, the university sector and others to achieve a joined up approach to the challenges facing us all.
However, when we consider the language used to describe who we are, we tend to find terms that are narrow, negative or reductive. Colleges deserve more than a description as the sector that delivers "post-16 learning that is not in schools or universities" and cannot be dismissed narrowly as making up the "FE sector" when one third of the 50 per cent pro-gression rate to higher education in Scotland is down to them. It is time finally to reject inaccurate or misleading descriptions and to move to language that makes sense to our clients.
When did you last hear a student saying they were "studying at FE?" or "going to FE"? Students go to college. Our clients and stakeholders recognise us as colleges. The sector is the college sector. We are Scotland's colleges and our track record gives us every reason to celebrate and project that brand with confidence, both domestically and internationally. Turning briefly to the future (with or without the sandwiches), we still face huge financial challenges. However, it is important to acknowledge that the success of the college sector is being recognised in the best possible way - with additional resources.
Significant public resources are coming into the sector, for example, to support estates development. New college campuses are being planned and built. Buildings are being refurbished and improved. In addition to this, over the next two years, the college sector will receive further funding support as the unit of resource rises - an essential step in moving fully and finally to financial security.
And there will also be a return to an element of growth, particularly from 2006 - allowing further extension of student numbers beyond the impressive levels already achieved.
Over the past three months, the principals' forum has undertaken a series of strategic dialogues with key stakeholders. Comments and responses have been positive, upbeat and supportive. In the second half of the year, the forum will be giving further consideration to developing a vision for the college of the future and to the future of the college sector. It will be doing this with confidence and ambition, looking forward to the continuing development of Scotland's colleges.
Dr Craig Thomson is principal of Glenrothes College. Over the past year, he was chair of the ASC principals' forum and is chair of the forum's visioning group. He writes here in a personal capacity.