No more talk, action

The Association of Colleges' conference is to get tips on lobbying from the politicians themselves, reports Ian Nash. Below Huw Richards assesses key players in the group which represents FE in Parliament

PHIL WILLIS, the Liberal Democrat vice-chair, is also his party's front-bench spokesman on further and higher education.

Elected as member for Harrogate last year, he hopes to see the group change direction: "I feel it needs to change from being a talking shop - albeit one that is very supportive of the sector - to becoming much more proactive and setting its agenda on issues such as how the lifelong learning agenda is to be addressed."

He points to the sector's labour relations sore as a good example: "I think there is scope for a voice of reason to deal with both sides. The issue is too important to be left to the trade union and the employers concerned - there is no point in getting an extra 400,000 students in by 2002 if they arrive to find a demoralised system incapable of delivering real quality."

He also wants to see the group push for the regional agenda: "I don't think the select committee report made enough of this and I don't see that the Government is addressing it very purposefully either."

He believes the AOCis at a crossroads in its career: "Where it goes from here is very important. In the 1993-7 period under Roger Ward it had a well-defined role as a very market-orientated right-wing body, and whatever one thinks of Roger Ward it delivered that agenda effectively.

Since he left it has been in a period of purdah and mourning, but now it has to come to terms with the change of government and play a more proactive role on national issues, Mr Willis believes. It can't just sit back and say decisions are up to colleges as separate incorporated bodies and commercial enterprises. That isn't adequate any more.

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