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FE merger must end sniping

There must be no schisms, no rifts and no factions. In the world of further education that seems like asking the impossible. But if the new body created this week as a merger of the two big organisations representing colleges fails to adhere, it will set the entire sector on the road to disaster.

The lack of a united voice for FE has largely been blamed for shortcomings in lobbying policy-makers for money. This is amply illustrated in the latest outcry over Government cuts. On the one hand, the Association for Colleges argues for more cash for the curriculum and buildings, insisting that the scope for more efficiency is exhausted. On the other, the Colleges' Employers' Forum in the fray over new staff contracts, insists colleges have to convince ministers and the public by demonstrating more efficiency.

When education and employment minister James Paice addressed an AFC awards ceremony at the Commons this week, he welcomed the merger - with a caveat that perhaps he should be concerned at the power a single voice may bring.

As Lucy Ward reports on page 27, the single body to tackle the political and professional battles colleges face, is almost a reality following the election of 12 principals and governors to run the new Association of British Colleges - but not quite.

Swift blasts of triumphalism followed the results, with one side claiming a clean sweep by those on its election slate, and the other insisting that the balance they argued for all along prevailed. This must signal the very last spasm of the old power struggle. The sniping must stop.

Where the college sector goes from here depends not just on who they appoint to run the new association, but on how they appoint that person. It must not be a dogfight between the two key existing chief executives: Ruth Gee (AFC) and Roger Ward (CEF). There is no doubt that the majority of members voted for the CEF style in the elections to the ABC board. While Roger Ward is allied to that style, it does not follow that he is the only one for the job. He may have stood up to lecturers and conciliated cleverly with management over contracts, but he has yet to display a capacity for the professional and curriculum issues affecting students - a word he rarely mentions.

Ruth Gee may not be perceived as having the same hard-headed approach to industrial relations as Roger Ward, but she has lobbied well over post-16 curriculum reforms, before and after Sir Ron Dearing's proposed reforms, and is seen as an influential figure in parliamentary circles.

But the quiet majority voted for a third option - open competition, properly advertised, opening doors to a wide range of applicants. The new board owes it to them to ensure that this happens. But more than this, they must appoint an external arbitrator, a chair, to see that the appointments procedure is impartially handled, giving all applicants a fair chance.

And when this is done, the different factions in the ancien regime must down their weapons and unite behind a leader they can trust and demand a better future for FE.

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