Put on your tutu and dance for all you're worth

The whole point of television, as I had understood it, was that it was created for the brain-dead, for the stressed-out potato for whom moving the cushions on the couch represented the limit of intellectual endeavour.

Why else do we sprawl through endlessly recycled highlights of Morecambe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses? Why else does Judy Garland merge indistinguishably with Jill Dando? So it was with resentment going on amazement that my bleary attention was caught by a recent showing of Swan Lake.

This was the film of the stage production about which there had been all the publicity, in which the swans are all male. What I hadn't realised when I read the reviews was that it wasn't just a case of chaps twirling about in tutus, but a radically new reading of the whole work. The music was, I think, unchanged, but just about every other assumption that you would bring to a performance of a familiar work was turned on its head. Ballet will, for me at any rate, never be the same again.

Art has always moved on in a sequence of convulsion followed by consolidation and refinement of the new idea, style or medium. Those who cause the convulsions are usually derided and even vilified. The shock of the new is always severe. If not, it is not really new and not really shocking. If art does not outrage at first, and stimulate all the time it cannot be true art, for that is its function. A production that, however lovingly, merely recreates or preserves a familiar experience is selling its audience short by offering comfort food, when it should be making them feel uncomfortable.

Managing a college is certainly not a science, otherwise we would have had copious formulae thrust upon us by the Further Education Funding Council, so it must be art. That being so, we should expect to witness off-the-wall, apparently outrageous new theories being advanced by brave and original thinkers, who later turn out to have been right all along. Who are the movers and shakers, and who the dreamers of dreams? Where are the Picassos, the Schoenbergs and the Norman Fosters of our sector?

They are certainly around, because there are some college managers who have gained a reputation for really innovative thinking. They have begun again from first principles, brought no baggage from the past, they have thought laterally. They are the ones whose colleges have either increased enrolments out of sight, generated capital reserves to die for, or rebased their whole curriculum and the way it is offered. In some cases they have evidently done all three. They have found new markets and they have reinvented their colleges. And they are regularly derided and frequently vilified.

After one convulsion and before the next one, the great majority of worthy, but essentially lesser artists who accept the new paradigm may produce moderately interesting new effects, suggest marginally new lines of interpretation or re-express ideas in a slightly fresh way, but the new orthodoxy remains unchallenged.

So it is with the management of colleges. At this institution, for example, the changes made since incorporation three years ago have been incremental. We have been working away at adapting this and refining that, but there has been no eruption of corporate cubism, no administrative atonality, no sign of putting our personnel plumbing on the outside. We have not brought about any sort of cultural shift. We are trying to do the old things better.

So we have polished up the marketing, improved retention rates, handled more students with fewer staff, persuaded individual students to take more qualifications, and tried to make better use of less accommodation (which we have spruced up as part of the marketing activity).

It has been, at times, a very painful process, but it has left the college as recognisably the same institution as it was before incorporation. Leaner, fitter and sharper, to be sure, but essentially the same place.

Abrupt changes in direction in the world of the arts do not, of course, mean that all development of the old ideas stops over night, nor that those developments are in any way unmemorable.

Puccini produced a magnificent body of operatic work that owed almost nothing to more innovative contemporaries. Realism in painting survived the seismic shocks of the modernists, to say nothing of the invention of the camera. You can imagine how old-style colleges will continue to flourish for some time yet, and at least until public expectation and understanding have absorbed the meaning of the new ideas.

Artists of all kinds have been adept at reacting to new developments in their field: the invention of new instruments, the coming of radio and television, colour faxes to mention some of the more obvious. But these have opened up possibilities, not closed them down. What marks out today's college mould-breakers from their artistic predecessors is that the imaginative leaps have been forced upon them by legislation and consequent financial imperatives. Their new model colleges simply could not have been invented without that legislation. They have responded, not prompted.

Nor have the changes for colleges required a one-off readjustment: it is in fact the year-on-year attritional nature of the cost-cutting that will grind us down. Now we know that there will be no relief from a newly elected Labour government, we know that there will be no relief at all. We shall have to interpret the music in a new way, we shall have to clothe ourselves in new ideas, and find wholly new steps to express the same message in a fashion that stimulates even as it outrages. And we will have to do it in a way designed to rouse the semi-comatose from their comfortable couches.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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