Further education in Scotland can now see much of the road ahead for the next three years. Clear signposts have emerged from the comprehensive spending review, the paper on Lifelong Learning, Opportunity Scotland, and the plans to set up a Scottish Further Education Funding Council from next January, writes Tom Kelly.
The government has promised an extra Pounds 214 million over the next three years. In doing so it has tackled the serious problems of underfunding and under-investment inherited from the previous administration, and committed itself to an expansion of 40,000 places in colleges by 2002.
Over the whole three years of the CSR plans, expansion of student numbers takes the largest share of the new money. Most of the extra places are likely to be for part-time students and the majority of these will be for non-advanced rather than higher education courses.
Some in the sector are nervous that government policy initiatives will consume the extra in higher unit costs. Major upheavals in the curriculum such as Higher Still do not come cheap. The plans for lifelong learning and for putting education at the forefront of tackling social exclusion are justifiably high priorities but potentially costly.
Nor will policy stand still for four years. Another transformation in responsibilities for further education in Scotland comes in 1999. Announcements are expected soon on the chairman and membership of the new funding council. Allocations for the first year of the three-year programme to 2002 will still be made by the Scottish Office. The council will take over payment of grants for 1999/2000 but allocate grants for 1999/2000 onwards. The sector hopes to see a real commitment to openness and transparency in its operations, and much greater predictability and stability in the funding allocations. The extra CSR cash should help a great deal in both respects.
Less certain is what will happen when the Scottish Parliament is set up next year. The existing three-year plan announced this year is likely to be revisited by the new executive and legislature and many of the action points have not yet been fully shaped. One gap is the Strategic Framework, intended by the government to address wider access and improved collaboration between colleges.
There were worries this would deny colleges the flexibility to respond to local student and employer needs, and might lead to enforced rationalisation in the interests of financial efficiency.
Another lurking fear was enforced rationalisation to merge or close colleges in the interests of financial efficiency. These dangers should diminish as the evidence of local co-operation increases - from major schemes such as the University of the Highlands and Islands project and the Glasgow Telecolleges Network to partnerships for marketing and curriculum development.
Two years ago colleges faced a road which was getting more bumpy and congested by the month. The road to 2002 now looks much more open and clear, even if there are still some potholes - and tolls - to negotiate.
Tom Kelly is chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges.