I had the memorable pleasure in 1995 of meeting in Brussels one of Europe's most charismatic politicians. Michel Rocard, former Prime Minister of France and MEP for Paris, asked me what exactly we meant in Scotland by the term "college". I explained that an FE college was an institution that sat between a school and a university. "Ah, I see," he replied. "So you have none of the power and all of the responsibility."
M Rocard will no doubt have forgotten our short exchange. But for me his remark was seminal. Earlier this month my love affair with Brussels continued as I attended an EU-sponsored conference on the "Modernisation of the European Labour Market". On the face of it the conference title appears rather uninspiring. But I recalled Labour's manifesto commitment that in terms of economic management it would accept the reality of the global economy and reject the "go-it-alone" policies of the extremes of right and left.
I also noted the CBI's commitment to a basic skills strategy and David Blunkett's recognition of the role which should be played by FE colleges in delivering this strategy as part of their economic mission.
I went to Brussels hoping to make sense of emerging EU policy in terms of FE. I was not disappointed. Opening the conference, Padraig Flynn, the Commissioner for Employment, identified four Europe-wide barriers to economic success. First, the simple arithmetic of the jobs gap. Member states need to create more jobs, better jobs and stronger businesses. Second, the skills gap. Each member state should develop modern education and training systems based on high expectations about lifelong learning. Third, the partnership gap. There is a variability across Europe and within member states with respect to the involvement of social partners, especially workforces, in collaborating on economic change. And fourth, the exclusion gap. Inequalities and segregation persist at the expense of poor people, women, older and younger people, and people with disabilities. In labour market terms, the underclass is adrift.
This week at the first jobs summit the Commission has asked ministers to extend their previous commitment to an Employment Chapter which recognises Europe as an economic entity and treats employment as a matter of common concern and shared priority. Employment guidelines have been set out based on four themes related to the gaps identified by Mr Flynn: entrepreneurship, employability, adaptability and equal opportunities. We can fully expect the Council of Ministers to endorse the Commission's approach.
In Brussels, Stephen Hughes, chairman of the Committee of Social Affairs and Employment, recognised the policy coherence which has emerged as the Employment Chapter and the guidelines have gained currency. He also stressed the need for concrete actions to address the problems and plug the gaps.
The FE sector has a statutory responsibility to participate in the concrete action. In term of entrepreneurship, we should continue to support the activities and training needs of small business. This should include new and more flexible models of delivery and innovative and inventive approaches to adding value to their sector by using European structural funds. We should also train more entrepreneurs.
In terms of employability, we should continue to link our courses to the needs of the labour market and increase our capacity to respond to the needs of employers. According to the CBI, core skills programmes should be our contribution to impact on employability. In terms of adaptability, we should continue to assist and even set an example to employers and their workforces to adapt to new technology, to accept the reality of lifelong learning and flexible work practices. In terms of equal opportunities, we should continue to extend our programmes of action on social exclusion and create specific programmes and courses for women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and the vast numbers of non-employed who could contribute to the economy.
But hold on a minute. Don't we do all of this already? We use grant-in-aid and structural funds for this purpose. The FE sector is already a visible aspect of the Government's employment drive. The opportunity to bid for New Deal funds will help but a real adjustment to the FE budget, like David Blunkett made south of the border, is vital for FE colleges to fulfil their economic and social missions.
We have the responsibility - it is expressed as a duty in the 1992 Act. The responsibilities are embraced but the power to extend and develop our contribution lies in the purse strings. Money is the power. It took a Brussels conference to remind me of this essential truth.
Graham Hyslop is depute principal of Langside College in Glasgow and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.