Neil Munro reports from the annual conference of the Association of Scottish Colleges in Uphall, West Lothian.
THE LEADERS of Scotland's further education colleges emerged from their conference buoyed by a ministerial pat on the back, some more loosening of the purse strings and an earnest of future good intentions.
As we revealed last week, Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, announced a pound;1 million initiative to widen student access to FE, and another pound;705,000 to work up proposals for more collaborative ventures between colleges. All colleges will receive a share.
Both those sums come from the Scottish Office's pound;2.05m "strategic initiatives fund", which comes from an unallocated part of this year's pound;295m FE grant settlement. It is therefore not new money.
But Mr Wilson went on to hold out the promise of more significant sums to come from the comprehensive spending review of all Government departments, now being conducted by the Treasury.
He acknowledged that "the FE sector has been, and still is, underfunded. I hope it will be possible to do something for the further education colleges once the review is concluded. And I would like to make it clear that the sector is very much to the fore in my own mind and intentions."
Mr Wilson pointed out, in the Government's defence, that it had already reversed the pound;5m funding decrease planned by its predecessors. Indeed, they had turned it into an pound;11.4m increase - a 4 per cent rise against inherited plans. But pound;5m of that is anticipated income from tuition fees paid by students taking higher education courses in FE colleges.
Bob Kay, the ASC chairman, commended Mr Wilson for "a clear message that he intends to try and do something for FE as part of the comprehensive spending review. And we can't ask for more than that.
"We were disappointed this year, but have made a strong case to the Minister about the funding requirements to enable FE to fulfil its central role in achieving Government initiatives."
The association estimates that the 46 colleges need a pound;25m injection just to meet existing costs and imminent demands such as new deal training under welfare-to-work, the extension of lifelong learning, involvement in the Scottish University for Industry and the introduction of Higher Still.
The ASC figure does not include any capital funding for improving FE buildings. Mr Wilson did his best to keep up morale by suggesting that he had not seen as many rundown and decrepit colleges as he had schools. One principal privately opined that this was because Ministers are never shown leaking roofs, peeling paint or ancient heating systems.
The colleges say the need to improve their building and plant is urgent - particularly as they are now expected to make themselves attractive to more and more students under the Government's plan for an increase of over half a million FE and HE places by 2002.
Edinburgh's Telford College alone estimates a minimum improvement programme to clear its repairs and maintenance backlog will cost pound;9m.
The college is currently drawing up plans for a privately funded development under the Government's public private partnership, But its preferred option is a completely new building on a new site - at pound;34m. Despite the Minister's praises and pledges, two other conference speakers combined to spread apprehension.
Alistair MacFarlane, the former principal of Heriot-Watt University who now chairs the Scottish committee of the University for Industry, said FE would have to face even greater competition as the University set about unashamedly creating a market place in learning opportunities (see page 6).
David Heald, professor of accountancy at Aberdeen University and an expert in public expenditure, predicted "a harsh financial climate" under a Scottish parliament.
Spending north of the border would come under more scrutiny than ever before, he said.
Treasury figures published in April showed that Government expenditure on education in Scotland was 30 per cent higher than in England.