Scottish colleges are relishing the chance to prove their independent mettle.
This summer is a watershed for Scottish further education, according to Bob Kay, chairman of the Association of Scottish Colleges. Both Scotland's parliament and its Further Education Funding Council now have full powers and colleges "relish" the challenge.
"The setting up of SFEFC is a starting point of a new period of optimism," he said.
Scottish FE has been in an anomalous position in the United Kingdom, shifting from local authority to Scottish Office control without the buffer body of a funding council. The association has long argued that there needs to be more consultation and transparency in decision-making.
SFEFC chairman, industrialist Robert Beattie, has underlined the commitment to openness. "We want to start as we mean to go on, listening to our partners and ensuring that they are clear about plans," he said.
The 12-member SFEFC shares a secretariat and chief executive, John Sizer, with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, but it has its own policies.
Mr Kay said the ASC would work "closely and constructively" with SFEFC. "We hope this will help address some of the problems caused by the severe financial constraints placed on colleges in previous years."
The constraints have been eased by a budget of almost Pounds 330 million for 1999-2000, a cash-terms increase of almost 14 per cent in the Scottish Office's final allocation to the sector.
The bulk has already been earmarked by the Scottish Office, leaving SFEFC in charge of a mere Pounds 3 million. This is being divided equally among three government priorities: collaboration and rationalisation among institutions; cutting-edge developments, which could include marketing, flexible learning and improving access; and supporting areas where provision is poor.
SFEFC made its first allocation this month to remote areas of Argyll, Benbecula and East Lothian. It has given Pounds 260,000 to Argyll College, Pounds 150,000 to Jewel and Esk Valley College and Pounds 100,000 to Lews Castle College for outreach centres.
Professor Sizer said: "We have hit the ground running. It means that more than Pounds 500,000 will be spent immediately to provide more and better further education to poorly served areas.
"The council is just considering bids aimed at encouraging collaboration among colleges and promoting innovations and ventures, vital if the sector is to play its full role in a lifelong learning society."
SFEFC is setting aside at least Pounds 3 million annually for strategic development. It is also shifting to a financial timetable based on the academic year, drawing up plans for transitional funding covering April to July next year.
Colleges welcome the move. They believe funding constraints have forced them to take a short-term outlook. In particular, they have been unhappy with a funding formula based on student numbers from two years previously. "Colleges need a sustainable and predictable funding framework that will allow them to plan ahead on rational foundations," Professor Sizer said.
The ASC has lobbied SFEFC with a statement of funding principles. Its chief officer, Tom Kelly, said these should promote partnership among colleges and among further education and other sectors to improve services to students and employers.
SFEFC should ensure that quality improvements are based on colleges' self evaluation and self-development, such as their mission statements and priorities, says the ASC.
Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, Henry McLeish, has made it clear that he sees further education as the heart of a "learning revolution", crucial to the government's agenda on social inclusion and on boosting Scotland's economic competitiveness.
The government wants colleges to take in an extra 8,000 students in the coming session, about 3,000 in full-time equivalent terms, but also 1,000 on part time higher education courses and 5,250 on part-time further education programmes.
Mr Kelly warned that it would take a great deal of effort but further education was at the hub of lifelong learning, "delivering much the largest number and widest range of learning opportunities post-16".
Mr Kelly said the ASC welcomed the recent study by Napier University researchers, commissioned by the Scottish Office, highlighting the accessibility of further education to local people.
"We now want to try and highlight some of the kind of access provision undertaken by colleges - not just where they deliver geographically," he said.
Further education has grown by about 10 per cent annually in recent years, leading at times to cut-throat competition for students. But pressures are set to ease with an anticipated maximum growth of 3 per cent this year and about 5 per cent in 2000-01. SFEFC is widely expected to implement innovative policies that encourage colleges to work more closely together.
In the coming academic year, Professor Sizer's watchword as chief executive of SHEFC is likely to apply equally to SFEFC: "The pendulum has swung from competition in Scotland to collaboration for Scotland."