About two years ago, Stuart Hodges was the cause of real concern at the college where he was a vice-principal. Normally energetic and effervescent, Stuart was continually tired and was clearly not coping with the workload.
"It continued until my son came home from university," he says. "We went walking in the hills and he noticed I was having trouble keeping up. When we stopped, he could see that I had a blue tinge to my face - he virtually ordered me to see a doctor."
Mr Hodges was diagnosed anaemic. The cause? A suspected tumour in the bowel. But waiting lists for surgery in his area were between six and twelve months. He faced the double problem of worry about the tumour and an illness that was making it impossible to do his job effectively.
Or rather, he would have had to wait - except that his college had a private healthcare scheme covering senior managers. In fact, he was in hospital within a week and a benign tumour the size of a grapefruit was removed from his large intestine. Mr Hodges stayed in a Lancashire clinic where he had his own room and service that would not have been out of place in a four-star hotel. "I was fully recovered and back at work within two weeks," he says.
The healthcare was provided through Burke Ford, the specialist brokers providing corporate cover in further and higher education since 1981. "Colleges are looking to see what we can provide," says Gareth Wynn Jones, a divisional director at Burke Ford, recently taken over by Jardine Lloyd Thompson. "Currently we deal with about 200 colleges, predominantly for key employees. We're now seeing a college a week coming on board."
For under pound;400 a year per employee, colleges can ensure that selected staff are covered. But those joining the scheme do not see it as a perk. "It's about ensuring continuity," says Mr Wynn Jones. He argues that when a lecturer is off through illness colleges can cover the absence in most cases. But senior staff can be very difficult to replace at short notice.
The healthcare scheme offered by Burke Ford is targeted at the sector in many ways. An individual scheme from Bupa, the nationally known healthcare service, would cost a 40-year-old lecturer more than pound;520 a year - and that includes a 30 per cent discount for teachers and lecturers. Bupa does have a corporate scheme, but a poor claims record can dramatically affect their cost, a problem that Burke Ford has dealt with by treating the whole of the further and higher education as a single employer.
"By pooling the claims experience of participating colleges, an averaging effect is created, acting as a stop-loss against high premium increases," says the company. Previous medical history, another problem with private plans, is ignored by Burke Ford.
"This scheme is unique in that it carries no such restrictions," says Mr Wynn Jones. Given that some colleges have only a handful of managers in it, this is a significant bonus. It even applies where individuals have transferred from other schemes where exclusions have been in place. The only medical conditions excluded from the scheme are chronic and terminal illness. Families can be written into the scheme, which also includes two helplines; one dealing with stress-related enquiries, one with general health questions.
But principals considering the scheme face two hurdles. Can they afford it? And would its introduction create resentment among lecturers? "It's both a resources issue and a cultural issue in FE," one principal observes. "However it was distributed, there would be an enormous debate about how equitable the package was."
"There's a guilt factor for governing bodies," says David Roberts at the Leeds College of Building. "Salaries are fair enough, but extra benefits are seen not to be acceptable."
In many colleges, the very idea of opting for private healthcare would be anathema to staff. Lecturers who work in an under-funded, hard-pressed public service are unlikely to view private medicine through rose-tinted spectacles. "We're in favour of the properly funded provision of public services," says Barry Lovejoy, a spokesman for Natfhe, the lecturers' union. "We're not in favour of private provision in education or health."
The union has never pressed for private healthcare to be part of any rewards package and doesn't anticipate doing so. "Our claims have been focused on key issues - erosion of differentials between lecturers and teachers and between managers and those in the private sector."
Mr Lovejoy sees the deterioration of conditions of service and the rise of stress-related illness as important issues in the sector, but he argues that private healthcare isn't the answer. "It deals with the symptoms, not the causes," he says.
But those colleges that have bought into the scheme insist that their decision has been a pragmatic one. "Our only perk is the healthcare scheme for managers above a certain level," says Vic Seddon at Croydon. "It's a question of time: to get people back to work very quickly."
Croydon has also opted for a confidential counselling service made available in the same deal. "It gets used," says Mr Seddon. "We get a quarterly return, which identifies usage but not the individuals."
Similarly, at Bromley College, the personnel manager, Linda Nash, is positive about the benefits of the healthcare programme. "Healthcare was introduced to senior managers on the basis that the college has very little money to spare," she says. "We certainly can't give interest-free mortgages or anything like that, but by shelling out relatively small sums per head we can give what is seen as a significant benefit. It was offered to about 25 staff in the college, and it went down very well."
Ms Nash argues that colleges need to work hard to come up with ways to reward key staff. "It is generally difficult to recruit good staff when the pay is so much lower than in industry," she says. Bromley offers a range of services: staff well-being days, cholesterol tests, blood pressure tests. "This is at virtually no cost to the college - other than the time of the staff taking part," says Ms Nash.
Private healthcare heads this list of provision. The feedback from those who have benefited is positive. "They could get appointments faster and they could get them when they wanted," she adds. Bromley also offers loans to staff who may want to include their families in the scheme.
The move to extra benefits by some colleges has a way to go before it matches provision in the private sector, where benefits can often make up a quarter of the whole salary package. Nick Page, a policy adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, says: "In tighter labour markets, employers are finding that it is the benefits which differentiate."
In addition to leased cars and fully funded pensions, some companies offer family-friendly policies such as company cr ches, laundry, even shopping, whereby the chores are taken out of staff hands. Some services can be offered by colleges relatively easily. Others such as interest-free mortgages and company cars are too expensive and potentially too divisive. The key question has to be: does it work? Do benefits have an effect on either recruitment or retention?
"They do seem to have a role in retention," says Mr Page. "But people don't base their decision-making on this. Things like the organisation's culture and a flexible working environment are seen as more important."
Perhaps the pragmatic approach adopted by some colleges is right, bypassing the moral and political issues to focus on cutting unnecessary management absences.
"Colleges want these people repaired and brought back to their desks as soon as possible," says Burke Ford's Gareth Wynn Jones.
But maybe principals should avoid the word repair when they attempt to sell the scheme to governors.
Burke Ford HealthCare Tel: 01628 486901