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Editor's Comment

With the words "diversity" and "equality" sprinkled on many of the initiatives announced in further education these days, the handling of the merger of Northern Ireland's colleges must seem like a curious throwback to the days when the "male, pale and stale" were almost guaranteed to get to the top jobs.

In a province governed by civil servants - in the absence of an elected assembly - direct rule has at least meant that things can happen a little faster with the politicians out of the way.

But the Department of Education and Learning has surely overstepped the mark in its approach to the merger of colleges - soon to be reduced in number from 16 to six. It has, as we report on our front page, insisted that the existing 16 principals are the only people to be allowed to apply to become principals of the six newly-formed colleges.

With just two women principals presently in post, it is likely that all six new principals will be men - and it remains to be seen what their religious background will be.

Natfhe, the lecturers' union, is not wrong in describing this as "jobs for the boys". But this is not just about a trade union scoring points against cosseted senior managers. It is quite clear that, behind closed doors, some governors, and even some principals of the current colleges, think the new vacancies should be put out to open competition.

Why else would the DEL send a strongly worded letter threatening enforcement action if colleges dare to look beyond their own backyard for fresh talent?

No doubt many, if not all, the new posts would have been taken by existing principals, even if the jobs were thrown out to open competition - and that includes advertising south of the border as well as across the Irish sea.

It is unfortunate that principals have found themselves embroiled in this controversy when FE in Ulster, under their leadership, has been such a great success story.

The effort which Ulster colleges have been making towards social cohesion, and the contribution they make towards the economic renaissance of Ulster, puts the province's principals in the elite.

Further education in Northern Ireland learned the lesson about the importance of equality of opportunity many years ago. Sadly, it is a lesson that the DEL, able to do its businesses without political accountability, has not yet fully understood.

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