Nuptial match

November 25, 1994

The honeymoon period in further education is drawing to a close." Thus Roger Ward, chief executive of the College Employers' Forum last week. What honeymoon? If the past year has been a honeymoon for further education then worry about the marriage. Contracts of employment, the credibility of courses and assessment procedures, competition from schools and Training Education Councils, management scandals have not made for an easy year. Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges was right when she said this week that colleges are going to need someone to turn to for advice. Volunteering her association for the role is a good idea.

When things go wrong it is too easy to demand that the Government step in -- "why doesn't somebody do something?", "it shouldn't be allowed". But it is more important that the institutions themselves take appropriate action. That is what independence means. There are plenty of people in political parties, Whitehall departments and funding councils who are uneasy with institutional autonomy and would like more control. Freedom as far as they are concerned is freedom only to do what they think is right. There has been, for example, much too much enthusiasm recently for Departmentof Education intervention in Huddersfield University or Derby College.

Gee is also right to point out that, given the enormous upheaval colleges (and universities) have faced in the last couple of years, the number of failures and scandals is rather few -- fewer than the Government's for example. And where they have erupted it has been because, instead of brushing things under the carpet, failures have been addressed. It would certainly be wiser to call on the advice of Michael Shattock -- rapidly becoming company doctor to the post-compulsory sector -- before the relevant funding council sends him in. But there is no need for ministers to get involved.

So what, if anything, does need to be done?

First, college governing bodies must sort themselves out. The legislation governing their composition is flawed and may have to be changed. They must not be allowed to fall into the hands of a clique, worse still a clique with vested financial interests. They must include staff and student representatives and operate in an open and accountable way. The Cadbury code for publicly quoted companies would provide a useful source book of ideas.

Second, unions should set about negotiating standard complaints and grievance procedures. Here the source book might be the 1988 legislation put in place for universities when tenure was abolished. It is elaborate and provides a great deal of protection for staff. Properly used it should also protect institutions from accusations of overriding academic freedom when they dismiss people for incompetence.

Third, academic staff, particularly in colleges, need to get involved with employers, professional bodies and the providing organisations to make sure vocational qualifications cut the mustard. It is vital that these qualifications become properly established. The demand is clearly there. But there is at present too much complacency among providing bodies and too much uncertainty among employers and the public. The academic voice -- while it should not dominate all others -- is not at present sufficiently evident.

All of these things are matters to be tackled within the system so that solutions are not imposed by impatient politicians. This will demand the complicated kind of leadership to which Shirley Williams refers in her review of Ronald Heifetz's book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, on page 25. If the Association for Colleges, embracing as it does both governors and principals, can provide support and a co-ordinating focus for this activity, it will do a great service.

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