Sights for sore eyes in Seattle

October 20, 1995

There is only one thing worse than arriving home with jet lag - arriving home with jet lag to find you have been comprehensively burgled while you have been away. I am not trying to let my experience jaundice my view of the annual conference of the Association of Community College Trustees, which I attended as summer turned to autumn in Seattle.

All those who had crossed the pond to attend previous conventions of ACCT had warned me I would be intrigued, envious, overwhelmed and, eventually, depressed and - perhaps - cynical. I was.

An assembly of nearly 3,000 citizens of the United States sharing a common aim - to promote the virtues of their own colleges above all others - and linked by a fundamental belief in the value of trusteeship to the "American way", cannot fail to intrigue.

They travelled huge distances, they paid extra to have breakfast and lunch with the star speakers and, being in Seattle, they leapt at opportunities to visit Boeing and to learn all they could from Microsoft about - you have guessed it - Windows 95.

In the meantime there were intriguing sideshows: my favourite was one entitled "Breaking up is Hard to Do". At 8am about 100 principals (and the odd trustee who had crept in incognito) listened to lawyers advocating the virtues of employment contracts that contained clear terms and compensation provisions to deal with the eventuality of having to "dis-hire" or "let the president go" after a year or so.

There was a time, I am told, when I would have been overwhelmed by some features of the US system - of boards with only a handful of trustees (five people run the three Seattle colleges, for example) who act in a decisive, strategic and business-like manner; of industrial sponsorship and fund raising ventures; of modularisation of the curriculum and the average age of the students.

Now, of course, these things are commonplace here - though I do not think we are yet ready to ask our staff to donate a tithe to the funding of the college, as I saw in Seattle.

It was reassuring to know that the hoary question of how you achieve a balance between being "businesslike" and "accountable" dogs the American scene as well as ours.

There was one new question. Several colleges explained that their reliance on state funding was well below 50 per cent. In this they are like some of our universities. This confronts Britain's community colleges with the inevitable question of how far do you drive down state funds before the state loses its rights of intervention and control?

It was explained to me that in the US the state, not the corporations, owns the buildings and for as long as this is so there is little doubt about who has the ultimate power - but in Britain . . .

And it was on the issue of buildings that my envy and depression was stimulated. It is when you return and walk round any of our campuses that you see the real differences nowadays.

In the US it felt like they had a first-class further education system in first-class accommodation. Often in Britain it feels like first-class education on a third- world campus. It will take generations and a revolution in state funding to allow us to imitate that part of the US.

Keith Scribbins is chair of South Bristol College and of the Colleges Employers Forum.

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