John Brennan, who will become chief executive of the Association of Colleges in September, welcomes a challenge. Just as well, for he will have his work cut out in persuading the government to give further education colleges a dominant role in the forthcoming national skills strategy. But his 30 years of helping to shape policy in further education will have boosted his confidence that it can be done.
In 1995, after becoming director of policy development for the Association for Colleges (the founding representative body for colleges that eventually became the AoC), he wrote a manifesto for the sector that had 47 policy propositions. "If I was to go back over those, I would have to say we have made significant progress on all of them," he said.
It may seem ironic that some of the work he did in pursuit of these aims led to the creation of the Learning and Skills Council, the quango that has clashed with the AoC often over the past two years. Dr Brennan said: "It's not that we set out to have confrontations with the LSC. We were just exercising our responsibility to respond to criticisms of colleges made by those who are influential in the system."
The evidence base on colleges and their activities built by Dr Brennan as director of further education development allowed the AoC to fight its corner in such disputes.
His analytical skills, perhaps honed in his time at Sussex University as a theoretical chemistry undergraduate and quantum physics postgraduate, have also been brought to bear in the AoC's "Colleges at the Heart of Business" campaign.
Even college heads may have been surprised to learn that their institutions provide 200 million training days a year. The gap between perceptions and reality often led to policy mistakes, Dr Brennan argued. "That is why, under my leadership, we will continue to respond to challenges made on the effectiveness of colleges," he said.