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Poll offers new start and hope of credible body with clout

This piece is for domestic consumption, and those who have no interest in plots, intrigue, hopes, ambitions, visions, double-crosses, deals or shenanigans should look away. For this is a story of the college sector displaying all its more lurid features while attempting to decide something rather important. At least, it looks important from where I am sitting because it affects all colleges and therefore 2 million or so students.

I am referring of course to the elections to the board of the new pan-college organisation, temporarily called the Association of British Colleges. The new board will set both the tone and the agenda for the new body, and will have a fairly free hand to do so. It will also decide how to go about the appointment of the chief executive.

We need to mandate the new board to do what we want. So the first requirement must surely be that it will go to national advertisement for the post, with the expectation that the current chief executives of the two doomed organisations will apply. We should check out the views of any candidate seeking our support: "Are you in favour of an open selection, or do you want a stitch up?" It is worth recalling that the original Association for Colleges' board went for a national advertisement for its chief executive, the Colleges' Employers' Forum did not.

The most important thing to remember about the new organisation is exactly that: it is new. It is not a merger, not a takeover. When the sixth-form colleges join in the autumn we will at last have a single voice for the sector, one that speaks with new coherence and new authority. How much of the past do we want to carry over into the new body? Some old lags like myself, grown grey and grumpy on boards and councils over the years, are not standing. Some have apparently more stamina.

Some bits of recent history are surely best discarded. When college budgets are being forcibly shrunk we certainly don't need any more examples of the extravagant use of our money which, according to a TES report, and not denied by the CEF, was uncovered in the auditors' review of that organisation. Value for money is required of us in colleges, we will need the same from the ABC. A smirking reference by Roger Ward, CEF chief executive, to profligacy in his annual general meeting will do neither as an explanation nor an apology.

So, the new board, needs a fresh start and a new mandate to develop a style which is open in its dealings with members and well-informed and convincing in its relations with the FE Funding Council and the Government. To be open in your dealings does not mean you have no ideas of your own, but it does suggest confidence in those whom you consult and in your own judgment.

The run-up to the election has not been edifying, and perhaps such things never are. But the telephone calls, the faxes, the slates alleged and denied, the deliberate misinformation, the gagging and the arm-twisting which have been so evident do suggest that we, at least, think the price worth fighting for.

How else to explain why two organisations, the AFC representing individuals and the CEF corporations, with widely different published objectives and conflicting structures, have made some sort of temporary common cause? It is clear that many members of each organisation feel queasy about the decision to cosy up as well as about the covert way it was done.

So much for openness. The new board also needs to be credible, and that means most particularly the chairs of governors. It is they, not the principals who have the potential to carry the day in the discussions with government and the TECs at national level. If they can talk about, say, the funding crisis facing colleges by drawing on their own experiences in commerce and industry they may be believed. Legislation required such people to be invited to join college corporations because of their experience of the real, non-college world. So it would be hard for a government to ignore their expert advice that efficiency gains could not be expected year-on-year forever.

They could tell the training and enterprise councils some home truths about the real comparisons between costs of training in TECs and colleges, particularly if they were themselves board members of their local TEC. Governors can be for us what parents are for the schools: an irresistible political force. It would be in our interest therefore to elect to the ABC board those governors who by reason of their knowledge both of the commercial world and of colleges will carry most clout.

We got it wrong last time when we agreed to set up two separate organisations. With hindsight it's sadly obvious that territorial wrangling and empire-building would result. A bi-polar sector has been the consequence. No wonder the sixth-form colleges kept their distance. The worst result of these elections would be a board andor a chief executive unacceptable to a group of colleges large enough to set up yet another debilitating rival grouping. We would then look not only fractious and incompetent, but plain daft.

Mark your crosses with care.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale college.

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