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The freedom of limited choices

Neil Munro reports on how college boards north of the border are coping with the demands of transition into the market place.

Rae Angus, the robust principal of Scotland's largest further education college in Aberdeen, makes no bones about his approach to management.

"Like it or not," he suggests, "our service is an economic activity and it suffers the curse of all economic activities : there is simply not enough wherewithal to go round."

But the man the unions love to hate - perhaps because he is a former union activist himself - is not one of nature's whingers to be found bleating about straitened circumstances. Mr Angus believes that "our greatest need is to manage our service more efficiently and effectively on behalf of our clients. Almost everything we do - from improving our buildings to raising the quality of our provision - depends crucially upon better management and higher productivity".

Presiding over a Pounds 14 million budget and a 20 per cent increase in student numbers since before incorporation, Mr Angus has reason to be pleased with himself.

While no college managements in Scotland are pining for the old days of education authority rule - which Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, describes as having "stood between us and progress" - Aberdeen's upbeat mood of living within its means and striving ever onwards and upwards is not notably widespread.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Education Minister, provoked wry smiles if not belly-laughs when he wrote recently that after two years of incorporation "colleges now have the freedom to determine their needs and priorities". Freedom, according to Jim Ewing, the master butcher who chairs the board at the Glasgow College of Food Technology, means a "cash-limited existence." Central control by the Scottish Office Education Department's Further Education Funding Unit is "almost complete", says Jim Thomson, who chairs the Clackmannan College board.

Although there is no FE funding council in Scotland, legislation allows one to be established. Ray Baker, chairman of the FE Employers' Association, will be meeting Ian Lang, the Scottish Secretary, next Monday to discuss policy and funding matters. But, while he confirmed that he was not happy with the largely historical funding regime in which 60 per cent of this year's Government grant to Scottish colleges is based on budgets inherited from the local authorities, he would not be drawn on whether he will be pressing for a funding council.

The SOED has been bold enough to commission research on the operation of college boards of management, which will be published later in the year. It will be surprising if the report does not record members' growing frustration with their lack of freedom to manoeuvre. The prospect of a reduced Scottish Office grant over the next three years and capital budgets which Aberdeen's Angus describes as "laughable" has been capped by the SOED's decision to call a halt to the expansion of full-time higher education courses in the colleges. This is regarded as the tin lid.

Although Terry Davies, principal of James Watt College in Greenock, is prepared to pay tribute to the SOED's "fairly hands-off approach which I would describe as firm guidance rather than centralised supervision", he acknowledges that this is not the perspective of every college.

FE boards and the SOED are still "working towards a more mature relationship", Tom Wilson at Glasgow College of Building and Printing, observes diplomatically. Board members drawn largely from the business world were not used to the sudden reversals in policy which the capping of HE courses represented, he adds.

Mr Wilson also puts in a plea for the SOED to scale down demands on the time and commitment which board membership involves; although his board meets only five times a year, the bulk of its work is done by committees which convene every four to six weeks. "It's no longer enough for them to look in after every fourth meeting or to fill in time between bowling matches," he comments.

Jim Ewing at the Glasgow College of Food Technology board, agrees that membership has become more onerous and time-consuming. "I'm in almost daily contact with the college and am virtually part of the senior management team," he says. Mr Ewing supports the case for paying at least leading board members, drawing a parallel with NHS trust members who are rewarded. "If we want people of the correct calibre," he adds, "we need to move in that direction."

The collapse of national FE negotiations in Scotland has added measurably to the burdens placed on the colleges, although this tends to fall on principals and their managements rather than the boards who none the less have to authorise agreements with the unions. The advent of plant bargaining is an added pressure, Tom Wilson agrees. On the other hand, he says it is one less external influence on the colleges and board members tend to be happy with that.

The SOED's long-term strategy is unclear. But board members and college managements are, it seems, going to have to live for a bit longer with the schizophrenia of being cast into the market place but not yet fully fledged competitors in it.

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