Further education stepped into the limelight this week with the government announcing legislation for post-16 reform and hinting at extra funding.
As expected, the Queen's Speech to Parliament announced a bill for post-16 learning and skills. Colleges hope the reforms will be backed with more cash for the third and final year of the comprehensive spending review.
Education secretary David Blunkett may announce the third-year funding next week. He is due to address the Association of Colleges' annual conference in Harrogate on Tuesday.
Mr Blunkett said at the Labour Party conference last month that he was hoping to do "a lot better" than the Pounds 725 million extra allocated to further education in 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
He told the Jonathan Dimbleby Show last Sunday: "I am making an announcement within the next two weeks about more money for education ... there will be massive investment."
Colleges say they need up to Pounds 600 million more next year to cope with the planned student expansion and extra quality demands. By 2002 they will be educating 700,000 more people a year than in 1997. Student numbers will be up to about five million.
But the college sector spokesmen said they would be surprised if Mr Blunkett were able to prise that much from the Treasury. A college source said: "When we suggested that figure to a Labour Party official, he looked as if he was about to collapse in shock."
What is certain is that colleges will gain substantial clout as a result of the learning and skills bill. The legislation will create a new post-16 funding and planning body, subsuming the role of the Further Education Funding Council and the training and enterprise councils. A separate Council for Education and Training will be established in Wales.
The national learning and skills council, to be based in Coventry, where the FEFC is already, will have a budget of about Pounds 5 billion a year compared with the FEFC's Pounds 3 billion. Some 47 local learning and skills councils will be located in the regions with a strategic planning role.
The aim is to ensure seamlessness and flexibility. Responsiveness to the needs of industry is important. Two-fifths of national and local council members will have business experience.
Inspection is also of key importance and the FEFC inspectorate will be replaced by Ofsted for 16-to-19 education. A new adult learning inspectorate will be created to oversee and ensure standards in post-19 education.
Higher education will be noticeable by its absence from the bill. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is to push for it to contain greater acknowledgement of higher education's role.
Other proposed legislation includes freedom of information and e-commerce bills. Government accounting will be reformed to introduce the private-sector standard resource accounting and budget format.
Opinion, page 14