Let further education be a donkey cart, let the college managers be the driver and the students the customers waiting for deliveries. Guess what position that leaves for the lecturers?
The cart's owners want to increase profits, they want more deliveries and they want them faster. And as they are a bunch of old skinflints they won't pay a penny more for their improvements. Instead they provide the driver with a bigger stick and cut back on the donkey's rations.
Naturally, they get their economies and increase profits. This pleases the driver because he is "delivering", albeit he has to wield his stick harder and more often. The customers are happy; they are getting a faster service.
The only real loser is the donkey; but then as donkeys don't have a lot to say for themselves, no one's going to take much notice of their tedious braying.
The analogy may not be theirs, but the scenario is precisely what Patrick Ainley and Bill Bailey describe in this helpful and timely book on further education in the 1990s. Or at least it's what their informants describe, the strength of the study lying in the series of interviews with teachers, managers and students in two FE colleges in the South of England.
The stories the interviewees have to tell are strikingly different. From their position between the shafts, the lecturers tell a familiar tale of woe about the post-incorporation changes: "more hours . . . morale very low . . . drowning under paperwork . . . the manager as bully . . . everything controlled from the top . . . it's like a police state". . . and so on.
As one sums it up: "I hate it. I resent it profoundly. I find it offensive. But you have to accept it." And yet on the same page we find the senior managers (donkey drivers) saying that: "...teachers felt a new responsibility for work over which they had more control and...enjoyed a greater self-respect for doing a better job.."
From both ends of the stick, as indeed from the students themselves, there was an acknowledgement of improvement in what students received. But lecturers saw this being brought about only at great cost to themselves: "It's a creaking system only held together by the work of the people there and that is a depressing picture."
As well as these divisions, the authors highlight the lack of overall planning afflicting 16-plus education. This is FE as ship rather than cart - a vessel lacking both rudder and helmsman, and facing a future, "more uncertain than ever".
Ainley and Bailey's vision of the future is very different, consisting of a new form of tertiary education linked across existing institutions. The FEFC would go and in its place would be regional funding for a comprehensive 16-plus public education service that would emphasise co-operation rather than the cut-throat competition of today.
Should any of this happen, however, it's unlikely to be in time to give any respite to our current generation of donkeys. They can expect to be in the glue factory by then.
Stephen Jones lectures at an FE college