Joined-up Scots start work

January 1, 1999

The Scottish Further Education Funding Council is born today, sharing premises, staff and some members with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

And one office will be shared by Chris Masters, chairman of SHEFC, and Robert Beattie, chairman of the SFEFC.

Both are businessmen: Mr Beattie is community investment coordinator with IBM UK, and Dr Masters is executive chairman of the specialist hire company Aggreko plc. Both are passionate about the importance of education and enthusiastic about the chance for Scottish further and higher education to work together.

"If you want a joined-up Scotland, you've got to have joined-up education," Mr Beattie said. "That gives you joined-up thinking, so higher education is not going off and creating purple chairs while further education is creating green chairs, and when you stick them in the same room they look urgh. If we are not talking to higher education, we have failed."

Dr Masters agreed that there must be a "very, very close" working relationship between the two councils. "My hope is that there will be strategic aims that will be common to both councils, and when we identify these, we should work together."

If one sees tertiary education as a continuum, there may well come a time for a single tertiary funding council, he says.

"But to take a position now on what may be right in two or three years' time would be wrong. We should recognise that in the early days there are different requirements, and it is very important that the SFEFC establishes objectives that are right for further education."

Mr Beattie admits he was encouraged to take on the chairmanship by the tangible Scottish Office support of an extra Pounds 214 million for further education after the comprehensive spending review. Further education has a major role to play in widening access and fostering social inclusion, he says.

Mr Beattie chairs a Scottish Office committee that will report soon on improving access to further education and training for young people with physical, mental and social disabilities.

It will produce "practical, pragmatic and affordable recommendations", he pledged, noting that the SFEFC will help implement them. "I call it being mugged - 'here are the recommendations, now go and do it, mate'."

Mr Beattie's crusade to help potential students overcome disabilities is far from detached. He developed multiple sclerosis about 20 years ago. His depression when it was first diagnosed led to several weeks as a psychiatric patient.

He campaigns vigorously to change public and employer attitudes to mental health. He believes he is the first wheelchair user to be appointed chairman of a quango. When he arrived at the press conference marking his SFEFC appointment, the journalists' jaws dropped. "I thought 'Gotcha'. That's the public reaction. 'He's not got legs, he's not got a brain.' I'm delighted that the government's recognised my abilities rather than my disability."

The climate for further education colleges after incorporation encouraged competitiveness, and it is now up to the SFEFC to foster collaboration, he believes. "I see the SFEFC being in a facilitating and leadership role, helping colleges think about the future in a creative way."

Dr Masters shares this view. "I don't believe SHEFC should be the planning body for Higher Education plc. Institutions should develop a strategic plan that is right for them, and the SHEFC should help rather than direct them."

A priority for the council is establishing a close relationship with the Scottish Parliament, he says. He is unfazed by the recently floated suggestion that SHEFC might be consumed in an anticipated "bonfire of the quangos".

"I happen to believe that the SHEFC adds value to the sector. We need to get across just how important higher education is to the future of Scotland, and that's not a motherhood statement."

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