Purged by the tyrants of incorporation

SCOTTISH further education is not boldly going into the 21st century. It is sliding back to the 19th, because too many of the people running it have a Victorian mentality.

We are supposed to live at "the end of history": democracy has triumphed; employers and employees are partners; and public servants - doctors, nurses, teachers (and surely lecturers too) are valued members of the community.

None of this rhetoric influences the hard-nosed businessmen (and occasionally women) who dominate many boards of management and college administrations. They are out to terrorise and bully. To do this they must first bash the main union - the EIS College Lecturers' Association. So Jim O'Donovan, its president, is likely to be sacked from Central College on the most preposterous charges.

How has this deplorable situation developed? Redundancies began when new-style boards were inaugurated by incorporation in 1993.Their first victims were union branch officials (who were also CLA executive members) at Jewel and Esk Valley and Borders colleges.

One notorious case was the victimisation of a branch official at Motherwell College. Less well-known is that several previous CLA presidents - from Langside, Reid Kerr and now Central - have come under attack. Last year Stevenson College joined the unhappy list and now, it seems, West Lothian College will follow suit with current and former branch officials targeted.

Coincidence? To borrow the words of Lady Bracknell in Wilde's play: "To lose one CLA official may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness. And to lose a committee looks like victimisation." Elected representatives are not the only ones to suffer - redundancies continue at Clydebank.

But union victimisation demonstrates not just simple cost-cutting, but a whole management style. Why does it happen?

Until incorporation, colleges were under local authority control. There was democratic accountability, and, if imperfectly, education was run for the benefit of students. With incorporation, boards had to have a majority of businesspeople. So the attack on elected lecturers' representatives began.

Doubtless financial constraints play a part. Further education lacks the media appeal of schools and the academic kudos of universities. Despite the belief of the parliamentary lifelong learning committee in parity of esteem, FE is the Cinderella service. But victimisations do not occur evenly across the sector.

Only some managements have the ethics of Attila the Hun. One reason is that the ethos of private business, which has given us the Enron and WorldCom scandals, has been imported into education. There is the same drive to cut costs irrespective of the impact on those who provide the service.

There may be personal vendettas at play, but to give managements (probably undeserved) credit for not being so petty, the main motive is to cow. Does this benefit students? Terrified lecturers may not ask for better pay or conditions. But they will also be demoralised and afraid to criticise initiatives that don't work, or insist on resources. The money saved on salaries will not stay in FE but will be clawed back and used to argue that FE can be run more cheaply.

Further education is run by boards representing neither the students, the lecturers who deliver the education, nor the community. Democratic accountability must be restored.

There is one 19th-century ideal worthy of adoption. It was expressed by Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 - not business boards of management but government "of the people, by the people, for the people".

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