The 'bosses' man' returns to bathe in the limelight

Roger Ward pleased his Tory paymasters when he tackled the lecturers' union. How will he fare under a new regime? Ben Russell reports

Roger Ward has developed quite a taste for champagne over the years. He was popping corks when he was appointed chief executive of the Association of Colleges and one year on he's popping them again.

Of course he may just like the fizzy stuff which has become his trademark. But the choice of tipple does characterise the ebullience of the man who has brought Britain's colleges further to the fore possibly than ever before.

Now, a year after the AOC's formation, Mr Ward claims colleges are drinking at the top table, rubbing shoulders as equals with the mighty forces of university vice-chancellors, local authorities and teachers' leaders.

The reinvention of further education has been confirmed, he argues, by the united front against proposed budget cuts and the intervention of big-hitters like barrister Helena Kennedy QC and Sir Ron Dearing, both of whom have advocated massive expansion in colleges.

Professor David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, has even proposed renaming Higher National Diplomas and Certificates which Sir Ron plugged so effectively "advanced further education". Roger Ward is happy to agree.

He proudly points to the unity forged between sometimes fractious principals to fight against Tory ministers intent on squeezing colleges during the "cash for growth" crisis - and claims credit for negotiating the deal which saved budgets over the past year.

But there is a rub. The new-found unity and much-vaunted profile of the colleges singularly failed to prevent ministers of any hue from axing large amounts of cash from this year's budgets.

And while new Labour produces warm words about lifelong learning, second chances and training, principals have yet to see the small but vital sums they need to increase opportunities for tens of thousands of people.

Mr Ward appears unruffled. "I'm proud that the compromise was negotiated by the AOC but that does not get away from the fact that the DLE crisis over cuts to cash for growth has highlighted the fundamental shortfall of funding for colleges. Nobody expects to be given money for nothing. We have regenerated the sector. Many efficiency gains have been made, but now it's time for the Government to respond."

Roger Ward acquired his reputation as chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, the AOC's predecessor - acting according to many as a hatchet man for the Tory government, taking on lecturers' union NATFHE and winning. The Conservatives rewarded him well, with a shiny CBE. Private Eye rewarded him by branding him The Bosses' Man.

To take that view, according to Mr Ward, is to confuse the actions with the man. He has now reinvented himself, he says, as a new cuddly Roger Ward.

But he is clear that he has delivered his side of the bargain, pushing through efficiency measures despite fierce opposition from lecturers. Now, he insists, it is time for the Government to pay up.

Roger Ward the buccaneer, the figure who declared himself intent on becoming chief executive of FE (UK) PLC, has disappeared from view somewhat over the past months. Gone are the days when diary columns were filled with tales of the man with the fridge full of Pol Roger, grand opera in the background during phone conversations, and a portable telephone so busy the operators feared it had been cloned.

Mr Ward still comments on the minute size of his state-of-the-art phone, but he has been behind the scenes, working on the AOC's organisation; building it up. And he has been doing the rounds, visiting colleges and hob-nobbing with some of the 70-odd new principals taking over this year.

It's been worth it. All the colleges have renewed their membership and the AOC has started to win significant contracts, including a multi-million pound inclusive learning contract from the FEFC, snatched from the arch rivals at the Further Education Development Agency.

He compares the AOC's profile, built on a Pounds 2 million budget, with that of the FEFC which handles Pounds 3 billion.

But Mr Ward is now talking new Labour language, about partnership with David Melville and the former chief inspector of colleges Terry Melia, who is taking up the reigns at FEDA. He is poised for an autumn of action. He has already been lobbying Margaret Hodge, new chairman of the Education and Employment Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into FE finances.

AOC officials have been preparing the groundwork for an assault on colleges' long-term grudge, the inequality they see between their budgets and those handed out to schools and universities.

The task now, says Mr Ward, is to raise the profile of colleges and persuade policy-makers that more cash must be found.

He is clear about the seriousness of that task. Colleges want results and they want them soon. His job depends on it.

As he said: "The AOC stands or falls on that and the sector will want that within two or three years. We will prove that the current FE sector is being done down. The case is unanswerable."

Roger Ward's year

* September 1996. Roger Ward appointed AOC chief executive amid fears that breakaway factions will oppose his reign.

* September 1996: backs principals for overturning national pay deal.

* November 1996: hosts first AOC conference in Cardiff, promising "fun, booze and dancing".

* November 1996: condemns FE funding settlement as "more bad news than good".

* December 1996: sixth forms join AOC to create a single voice for colleges.

* January 1997: FEFC chief executive David Melville reveals threat to expansion budgets. Ward vows to fight any change.

* February 1997: Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard axes funds for expansion. AOC claims victory short term, but colleges worry about next year.

* March 1997: NATFHE votes to break law over pay deals.

* March 1997: Ward gives cautious support to calls for a Dearing-style review of colleges.

* May 1997: presents new Government with a bill for Pounds 39 million to cover backlog of work. Demands action over budget crisis.

* June 1997: demands college seats on training and enterprise council boards.

* July 1997: Kennedy Report hailed by AOC.

* July 1997: welcomes Dearing's proposals for college expansion.

* September 1997: plots autumn funding offensive.

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