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Lucy keeps her paws on the ground in flight of fancy

Harrogate is the home of antiques and afternoon teas. And more recently of conferences, now that the town has the facilities to attract the big hitters such as major political parties and the CBI.

Appropriate, then, for the Association of Colleges, confidant of politicians and business people, and not without its own treasured antiques, to come to town for its annual crumpet-fest.

Cardiff 96 had been a little less jolly than Acapulco 22, and the past year has been particularly horribilis. However, the waters of the spa are famous for their restorative powers and the tired and sometimes emotional delegates were ready to let their stays out at Harrogate 97.

Just as we were getting our grey suit back from the cleaners and packing the hot-water bottle, The TES went public on a series of spectacular allegations about the AOC's chief executive. The rights and wrongs of the case will not be known until an inquiry has pronounced, but that didn't stop wild whisky talk late into the night.

The main intended business was to reflect upon the strange events which have engulfed the sector since the last conference, whereas the main actual business was the exchange of solicitous enquiries about enrolments, furtive note-comparisons about funding, and sweeping surveys of who was still in post, who had gone and who will be in the press spotlight. Nothing out of the ordinary there, then.

The conference centre itself is a thing of neither beauty nor flawless function, but it has a remarkable central corkscrew-shaped walkway which does duty for the more usual lifts and stairs, neither of which delegates are intended to find or use.

The effect was that at the beginning of every session you could watch the principals and governors trudging interminably upwards like figures in an Escher drawing, condemned forever to labour but not to arrive, whereas at the end of the sessions there was the spectacle of the same governors and principals spiralling downwards . . . into what? Bankruptcy? Oblivion? Or perhaps the canteen?

The centre-piece of the conference itself was the appearance of the Secretary of State. His score on the clapometer would have guaranteed a return next week, had this been a game show, but since he had paid Pounds 83 million to take part, he might prefer to leave it for another year. It was not just the tales he had to tell, but the way the old schmoozer told them which had every member of the audience eating out of his hand. Bar one: Lucy, his dog, was unmoved, having obviously heard it all before.

It was only afterwards, when the envelope-backs came out, that we realised that he had in reality only moved money around, that none of it was really new, and a large part was a refund, and a partial one at that, of what taken off us by the last Government. Our money, in fact.

He spoke of us as a united sector, which of course we are. What he did not say was that his audience for the day had only a very partial view of the territory, but that would have been true, too. The perspective of principals and the governors who accompanied them to the conference is like one of those aerial views which are increasingly offered by enterprising door-to-door pilots, or which are found in glossy books about the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales.

The scope and range of the views are superbly impressive, but it's often quite hard to pick out the details from that height, even of places you thought you knew. Such pictures would be hopeless if you tried to use them to find your way about.

For a better sense of what really goes on, there were the annual Beacon Awards. Although nominally given to colleges, the citation makes clear which department, faculty or division has done the work which is being recognised by the award.

Quite right too. The fact that Accrington and Rossendale College won one this year does not, I think, disqualify me from saying what a good idea they are because they show a series of ground-level snapshots of the variety of what goes on in colleges, much of it of very high quality and almost unknown to the general public.

That much David Blunkett did point out. He could have added that the generous sponsorship of these awards by commerce and industry (mostly) shows that some companies understand the importance of what colleges do, and are prepared to put their money in the appropriate orifice. There has been no reported example yet of a company seeking to use its investment to secure from a college any improper advantage. We do like to keep our hands clean.

Colleges were invited towards the end of the conference to consider raising their sights still higher by applying for a Queen's Award for further and higher education. Winners are entitled to rank themselves alongside those household names which have won the parallel awards for Industry or Export. And why not?

The Queen, in common with many of her subjects, may not know much about further education, although her daughter could tell her a thing or two. But it would be good to see leading examples of one of the most efficient sectors of the national economy, and one which is increasingly involved in exporting, given a Palace cuppa and a handshake to go with it.

If it all happens, the sharp-eyed commercial folk of Harrogate, where the idea was first promoted, might, in deference to Her Majesty, open a tea shop named after her. Betty's? It might catch on.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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