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Human face of hi-tech hybrid;FE Focus;Interview;Chris Hughes

Harvey McGavin meets the new man at the top of the Further Education Development Agency.

Chris Hughes is the first to admit that the Further Education Development Agency, the four-year-old hybrid of the old Further Education Unit and the Staff Training College, has had an awkward infancy.

As principal of Gateshead College and FEDA's new chief executive, he acknowledges that the organisation has not yet achieved the status of its forebears. "They were highly regarded," he says. "I don't think they were immune to criticism but they were like part of the furniture. FEDA has been seen as disappointing by some people."

Putting its house in order will be Chris Hughes's top priority when he takes over from outgoing chief executive Stephen Crowne - who is returning to the Department for Education and Employment in September.

With the backing of a new board and support of a new chairman, Terry Melia, he is intent on reinventing FEDA, helping to define the agenda for lifelong learning and answering the criticisms of the recent Commons education and employment select committee report, which cast doubt on FEDA's performance.

"We must respond to the report," Chris Hughes says. But the problem is more to do with style than content, he insists. "There is an enormous amount of good work going on. Perhaps it needs different presentation."

"FEDA needs to be seen as a leader in developing lifelong learning and how it is delivered. It needs to reposition itself as a kind of think tank for lifelong learning rather than an organisation that provides a few courses and programmes of career development."

In keeping with his plans for FEDA to be more "future orientated", Chris Hughes's tenure as principal of Gateshead college has been defined by a progressive outlook. Learning World, the one-stop education shop in Gateshead's Metro Centre his college has run in conjunction with Sunderland University, has been a big success.

"It was different because of its location, management, structure and style," he says. "It took away the barriers and didn't leave people with the problem of bridging the gap between FE and HE."

Building links between the two has been another byword of his principalship. His college set high standards for degree-level courses and although FE and HE have significant common ground and should work more closely, he says, "we have to draw a line between them institutionally - FE isn't about advanced research, for example."

The subject of mergers, a likely item on FEDA's agenda, is another he is familiar with. A flirtation with neighbours Newcastle College stopped short of a full alliance, an episode he describes with characteristic relish.

"It does need the two to tango. But once the music started, we found we were treading on each other's toes."

But Chris Hughes says collaboration is a more important issue. "I would like to see FEDA provide some strategic thinking. Colleges want to retain their competitive edge, but there is room for sensible collaboration for mutual gain."

In the teacher versus technology debate, he sees FEDA as a kind of peace-maker, finding a middle ground and developing a learning model for the 21st century.

"There is a tendency to polarise the debate between tutor-based learning and computer-based learning where you learn everything through a helmet. IT is a powerful tool but learning is also a human activity and people want to interact with other people."

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