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Cracks appear after massive expansion;FE Focus

Harvey McGavin on tensions at FE's largest franchising operator

AS COLLEGES scrambled to sign up students in the franchising free-for-all that followed incorporation, Halton College gained a reputation as a go-ahead institution with a global outlook.

The Widnes-based college has enrolled students from as far afield as Hong Kong and New Zealand under deals which saw it double its student numbers in three years and become the largest franchise operator in FE. It ran hairdressing courses via video conferencing links to New Zealand and enrolled students in China on beauty courses.

While other colleges had their fingers burned when badly-conceived franchising arrangements went wrong, Halton emerged as an innovator, and counted major employers like supermarket chain Tesco among its customers.

In 1997, Further Education Funding Council inspectors praised the range of franchised courses that the college had developed with more than 200 companies, but warned that some on-the-job training was slow to show results.

Their report said: "Rapid expansion of the dispersed provision has had some adverse effects on curriculum provision in the college" and "the thinking which informs the dispersed developments has so far had limited impact on provision in the college." Out of 865 students who started an national vocational qualification level 1 in cleaning building interiors in May 1995, only 16 per cent had acheived them 18 months later.

Principal Martin Jenkins was the prime mover behind the college's push for new business. In a staff newsletter in 1996 he said the college's threefold increase in business was because "we have been flexible and and have adapted quickly to the changing client base".

In the newsletter Mr Jenkins talks about his vision for the future of FE at the college where lecturers become "learning facilitators" and reassures staff that the "adoption of the new learning paradigm" would not remove the need for them, despite rumours.

But "non supporters" who did not share his vision did not figure in his future plans. Lawrence Keen, a technician at the college since 1974, and sometime Unison steward, was made redundant in 1997. In March this year, an industrial tribunal found that he had been unfairly dismissed and awarded him pound;34,000 compensation. The college is contesting the ruling.

At the tribunal Mr Jenkins admitted that "non supporters" would be more likely to be selected for dismissal, and the tribunal chairman concluded that there was a culture of "anti-unionism" at the college. The tribunal saw footage from a concealed security camera that had been trained on the union noticeboard to identify "non-supporters".

Mr Jenkins' dream of an international educational empire has taken him on trips to China, Hong Kong, North America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Although he admitted to a governors' meeting that the college's international strategy had been "ad hoc and opportunistic" he shows no sign of regulating his appetite. Minutes of the same meeting also mention a request from an American consortium for Mr Jenkins to "offer training to a multinational company on a global basis."

The preoccupation with drumming up foreign business clearly rankles with staff. "He's away almost as much time as he's here," said one source at the college.

Staff have also taken umbrage at the salaries awarded to the principal and his deputy. Mr Jenkins earned pound;118,348 last year, making him the highest-paid principal in FE, while vice-principal Jenny Dolphin took home between pound;90,000 and pound;95,000 - considerably more than most college heads.

The high salary antagonised staff further last year when he received a 19 per cent rise while staff were awarded 2.5 per cent.


* In 1994 programmes entitled Introduction to FE were given to between 1,200 and 1,300 students on low incomes. The courses lasted three or four hours but the college claimed funding for 16 week, full-time courses.

* In199495 the college claimed pound;186,000 for courses in social and life skills given to students with learning difficulties which were not eligible for FEFC funding.

lIn 199495, 8,000 catering students enrolled on levels 1, 2 and 3 were described as load band 6 (attracting higher FEFC funding) when in fact 1,000 of them were load band 1 and the other 6,000 were load band 4.

* Public funds were used to set up a private company in China, with senior college managers as board members. The company's offices in China were used to promote products for cosmetics company Cusson's.

* IT equipment was bought from Apple UK without seeking alternative quotations. Another order went to Apple after a cheaper quotation which would have saved pound;1,000 per machine, was rejected. College governor Phil Hemmings is UK Education marketing manager for Apple UK.

* "Newly qualified and inexperienced" auditors, employed to examine the college's books were misled into believing students on one course were from Merseyside when they were being taught in Galashields.

* College funds were used to refurbish the principal's office suite with a gym, marble floor, kitchen and shower room costing a total of pound;250,000. l A private multimedia company, Media Vault, of which the principal and vice principal were directors, was set up on college premises rent-free.

* Public funds were used by the principal and vice principal to pay for a hire car used on a trip to France.

* In February staff were "offered the opportunity" to shred confidential documents.

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