Marriages made in heaven?

August 2, 1996

The new Association of Colleges is launched this week and the Further Education Funding Council gets a new head next month. Harriet Swain assesses their chances of shaping the future of further education

Crates of documents have been loaded up and unpacked again in their new home. Staff at the Association for Colleges offices, near London's King's Cross Station, have transferred their pot plants a few streets away to bloom on desks at the former Colleges Employers Forum.

The move marks the end of the two organisations that embodied the start of post-incorporation further education. As of this week, they form the Association Of Colleges, which aims to push a sector forced to grow up fast over the past three years further into the limelight.

But for the time being the new organisation will be something of a two-headed beast. The chief executives of the former organisations - Ruth Gee of the AFC and Roger Ward of the CEF - are to remain in post as executive directors, dealing with their existing remits but from the same office.

The differing personalities of Mr Ward, known for his confrontational approach to industrial relations and his taste for champagne, and the strong-willed Ms Gee are unlikely to make for cosy chats over the coffee machine.

Both will be acutely aware that they are vying for the top job, which may eventually be bestowed on either, or a third party.

Notices went out last week advertising the post and a decision is not expected to be made before the last week of September.

Rumoured contenders include Roger McClure, Further Education Funding Council finance director, Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, and John Akker, general secretary of lecturer's union Natfhe.

The final decision rests with an appointments panel drawn from a 12-strong board elected in June.

Until the appointment is made, the 12 staff employed by the AFC and the two dozen at the CEF will be on tenterhooks to know whether their jobs are safe.

Set to change at the same time are interim chair Graham Baskerville, principal of Chippenham College, and vice-chair Ray Denison, chair of Barnsley College. Neither wishes to stand for permanent election.

Upheaval aside, the new organisation has some serious issues to tackle.

Merging the AFC and CEF was designed to present a united front for further education and raise its profile in an increasingly tough funding climate.

The smaller AFC first mooted the idea, fearing the wealthier CEF was encroaching on its territory and dividing the sector.

Priorities for the two original organisations differed, with the AFC concentrating on lobbying for better funding while the CEF, embroiled in pay negotiations, pushed for greater efficiency from the colleges.

Elections to the board of the joint body, in which former CEF board members dominated, suggested most colleges thought its aggressive stance would best represent the sector in the future.

The new body will be under pressure to resolve the four-year dispute with lecturers over contracts.

But it will ignore profile-raising at its peril. Recent newspaper articles have concentrated on unorthodox methods of student recruitment and criticised standards.

While these views prevail, the Government is unlikely to see many votes in raising further education funding allocations.

At least the new body will soon be able to concentrate fully on these issues without the distraction of internal squabbling. But not yet.

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