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I mentioned the f-word once, and got away with it

The language is getting worse in colleges. Of course further education has taken some pride in being coarse-grained, a little rough in our ways and very ready to call a spade by its given name. Even before incorporation took us firmly into the hands of business and commerce, you could hear what is coyly known as industrial language on the corridors.

You get used after a time to those short, sharp, explosive grunts, but I still remember the shock when, for the first, unmistakable time, I heard the f-word. The person concerned, an otherwise inoffensive and rather shy geography teacher, blushed when he realised what he had said, and ran off to trace a map, or whatever geography teachers do to take their mind off things.

But the word hung in the air. I've heard it increasingly frequently since, and I've even used it myself in a meeting of the board of governors. It has lost its power to shock, and I now dare to write it in this piece. Flexibility. There I've said it again.

Like most rude words, flexibility has a natural and entirely respectable original meaning. It's what has got loaded on to it, its connotations, which do the damage. Managers use it in its original sense, as a term of approval, a near-synonym of helpfulness, whereas the managed spit it out as a term of abuse, a proxy for exploitation.

Now the retiring Dr Terry Melia in his last report on the inspection of colleges, Quality and Standards in Further Education in England, before he picks up his golf clubs and starts on a new round of course inspections, has been at it again.

He makes it clear that colleges are being innovative and entrepreneurial in looking for business, that we have sold our services not only locally but all over the world, and that we are effective and responsive. The number of colleges getting a grade one for range and responsiveness has risen every year since inspection began. It is the only cross-college activity of which that can be said.

So now we are more ready to do whatever the client wants, as long as they are prepared to pay, which makes FE not only very flexible but a very old profession indeed. We will bend over backwards to be obliging, our prices are keen, and for familiar or big-spending customers we might be prepared to drop them. Some of our more desperate colleagues are even, allegedly, offering to pay good money, to persuade reluctant punters to come.

All of which is fine and dandy, but, to anybody who is not one sock short of a clothes line, it is obvious that measuring performance by the number of clients satisfied or the amount of money generated is insufficient, interesting though such statistical information may be.

Terry Melia's report says little about how colleges' current roles relate to the mission statements which we crafted so carefully such a short time ago. Nor should we be surprised at that, because it's not something to which his teams of inspectors are asked to pay much heed.

He notes that some of our newer customers, those who never previously penetrated the system, are being served rather more often than used to be the case by inexperienced part-timers. Elsewhere he comments that senior managers are quickly acquiring the financial skills we need to cope with the pressures on our budgets. Quite.

There was a time when we were all more discriminating, when we would turn down work if we did not think we could do it well, or when the conditions demanded by the would-be client were unacceptable. Nowadays there are examples of colleges which undertake work in locations so far from the college as to be not only out of sight, but necessarily out of mind for much of the time.

Do all of us still refuse to contract with organisations whose equal opportunities policies appear to us to be defective? Do we still hold the line against those managing agents who want us to deliver off-the-job training in too few hours in too few weeks? Do we still recommend to biddable school-leavers that they should try the college next door where, to be honest, the facilities are better? Or do we lie down in front of the inevitable?

Colleges are now somewhere in the process of completing the next three-year strategic plan, and therefore reviewing their mission. It is a good opportunity to have the right sort of internal debate about the values for which the college stands. It is too easy simply to say that the college offers something for everyone, that customer choice alone determines the curriculum. We have gloried in words like openness, access and responsiveness and they will remain key aspirations for the sector. It is high time that we thought and said a bit more about integrity, appropriateness and objectivity.

It might be argued that there is or should be an ethical dimension to quality, and that a good grade for quality suggest that the curriculum is fit for its purpose. There has been no increase in the proportion of grade ones for quality over the past three years, and that may be significant.

Now that, for the first time, a college in Manchester has actually gone to the wall it is harder to resist the argument that the bottom line is all that counts, after all the problem at De La Salle was in the budget and not moral turpitude. But it needs to be resisted nonetheless.

If we try to restate our belief in the decency of FE and act upon it, we may, in the present climate, fall on our faces. If we don't, we will end up flat on our backs.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.

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