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Ethical dilemmas facing entrepreneurial principals

Nobody who is compelled to endure the InterCity west coast line will be wholly against privatisation. When you have missed another meeting because you arrived too late, exhausted your mobile phone batteries rescheduling your day and wrecked your digestive system with buffet food on an ulcerous stomach, you can't help thinking that anything must be better than a state-run network.

But then you get home, find your gas bill and are reminded that the private-sector can also offer terrible service and arrogant indifference to customers. But then, how would our clients rate colleges? We are, of course, still in the public sector and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that. Some of the disciplines of the market have undoubtedly made us more sensitive to the needs of our customers.

Colleges are on the whole better now - not just more pleasant places to come to, with fresher paint, more comfortable chairs and better signposting, but better at the core business too. Our courses are more accessible and we support students better and we are more anxious that they should succeed.

Apologists for the continuing failures of the railways usually point to lack of money. Well, we haven't had much either, but we have made better use of it. Somehow, when the line of accountability is shorter, it gets spent more wisely. It is both puzzling and depressing to have to admit the possibility that large, centralised public services simply cannot be run efficiently.

As we clean up our act we need to ask whether this service we offer is better for all, or just some. I am not returning to the often-made point about market forces driving out the expensive provision like construction and engineering to make way for cheap business studies. There is a much more sinister development, of which the early signs are unmistakable.

If you look at the mission statements of ambitious colleges, they reek of good intentions about meeting whole community needs, inclusiveness and reaching out to the neglected ones. If those sorts of sentiments mean anything they imply equality of opportunity and a cheerful handshake for all comers. An admissions policy based on that sort of openness would, of course, offend people who are looking for exclusivity. To put it bluntly, some kinds of student can be off-putting and in a fiercely-competitive market the rewards may go to the college which manages to hide its "difficult" students away.

It is happening. A college not far from here has moved its special-needs provision from its main site, which had been specially designed, adapted and equipped. The college is now better positioned to target the students who have been lured to other, more homogeneous institutions. The issues are uncomfortable, but they cannot for that reason be ignored. They apply to my own college, too.

We have a very extensive range of provision for students with learning difficulties, it is a key part of what we do and I believe we do it well. The emphasis is on steady and progressive integration into the whole range of college activities, social as well as learning. These activities speak to two of the eight principles enshrined in the mission statement "we will provide the best possible education and training opportunities for all", and "we welcome clients from all parts of the community".

So, any visitor to the college will see individuals with behaviour which is at times mildly aberrant from the norms of institutions which make no such provision. I know that some parents look at what we do, even admire our commitment to equal opportunities, but say, in effect, "not for my son or daughter". They say that they would rather send their children to a place which specialises in A-level courses and does not divert energy and resources into what they would regard as a distraction. So, off they go, to a grant-maintained sixth form and more units have been lost to us, with all the obvious consequences for the budget and job security.

You get the same sort of tension over young men, who in their loud, jostling, frolicking in the car park or in the foyer can be quite intimidating. Logic may tell you that it's no more than the usual post-adolescent claiming of territory and assertion of self, which is wearisome but temporary. Emotion may urge you to take your custom to where such problems do not exist, or are at least kept out of sight. For reasons which remain obscure to me, there is a concentration of such young bucks on foundation and intermediate level courses.

Should we do as other colleges have done and move all those programmes to an inconspicuous annexe, and leave at the main site those students who can be relied on to be calmly studious and not push in the dinner queue? Or we could, like others, establish a discrete, sanitised and safe site for the prestige programmes, away from the hurly-burly of the main campus: a policy which the former South African government used to call separate development.

The decision is a delicate one: do you go flat out for growth, offer what the customers want, and maybe create some new jobs on the back of your success, but adapting your mission to the crudities of the market-place? Or do you continue to occupy the increasingly lonely moral high ground, handing out P45s to ex-employees and comforting them with the thought that the college has retained its integrity? Or do you just rail against the unfairness of it all and put the decision off?

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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