In recovery mode

The former principal of James Watt College, who was heavily criticised for his handling of the financial crisis there, hits back at his detractors in an interview with Neil Munro

Bill Wardle admits he has felt like "public enemy number one" in the past few weeks, but has little doubt where the responsibility lies for the debt-ridden college he has left behind. He sums it up in five words - the Educational Institute of Scotland.

"The denial of the realities of the college's staffing profile and defence of a rigid and unsustainable status quo have been led by the EIS," he says.

"The problem remains the same and the solution remains the same. If I was the problem, it would have gone away when I went away - but it hasn't. I wasn't the problem: I was trying to find the solution. Not to have done so would have been mismanagement indeed."

The unpublished report from the inquiry team established by the Scottish Funding Council condemned Professor Wardle's management team as "dysfunctional" and "dismal", as well as "aloof, haughty and inconsistent"

(TESS last week).

But he insists his mind was totally concentrated on the key task. "The core problem at James Watt College has been, and remains, the scale of staffing, unit and aggregate costs, and the terms and conditions of staff are crippling issues for the college," he says.

Professor Wardle points out, as did the funding council's report, that staff costs are high and staff productivity is low: lecturers are paid more than 20 per cent above the average for the FE sector, while productivity lags more than 10 per cent behind the norm for larger colleges. This represents more than pound;3 million in unnecessary additional costs each year, he claims.

Another pound;3 million comes from the payments which the college is forced to make from its revenue account to meet the costs of its PFI contract for the Kilwinning campus, the mortgage on the new Waterfront development in Greenock and various leases on specialist plant - all of which Professor Wardle inherited. This makes a combined "black hole" of pound;6 million, very close to the accumulated debt of pound;6.8 million.

He admits that the inflation of staffing costs was tolerated so long as there was "comfort" from other sources of income, such as open learning and European funding, but these have proved to be "volatile" and are now under threat.

Professor Wardle fears the recovery plan from Graham Clark, the interim principal, which is now under discussion with the staff and calls for up to 48 redundancies, will be "less considered" than the one his team put forward in March last year to shed up to 70 academic and management posts.

This involved a skills audit of all staff.

"If the union had advised its members then that an inflation-level salary offer was acceptable, that the pay and conditions norms for the sector should apply and that we had exercised due diligence in the severance arrangements, everyone whose jobs are now under threat would have been safe," he says.

Professor Wardle suggests that Dr Clark's recovery plan simply lifts the work he and his colleagues did during 2005-06: "It is at its strongest where it is derivative."

But the EIS is not alone in Professor Wardle's sights. He believes his efforts were not sufficiently backed up by his own board or the funding council. "The board was not strong enough in supporting me," he says.

He also points to management under-performance in some key areas and concedes that he should have demanded early support from the board to address it.

He reserves particular scorn, however, for the funding council's FE development directorate (the Fedd), whose report has proved so damaging to him. He has already drawn its attention to a string of mistakes and omissions, commenting: "If you can question matters of fact, you can sure question their judgment." He says he was never interviewed by the Fedd in the course of its inquiry, and was not given an opportunity to comment on the report.

Among the errors he has identified are the well-publicised Fedd criticisms of international travel, which do not mention the fact that colleges were being encouraged to win overseas business and that Scottish Enterprise paid 50 per cent towards the cost of these trips. He also dismisses the comments about "lavish" expenditure on a minibus (which was for special needs) and refurbishing the vice-principal's office, arguing that these were carefully-controlled aspects of capital expenditure and were comparatively small change. "These are distractions since the problem at James Watt is entirely on the revenue side," he says.

Professor Wardle rejects the Fedd view that he was an "over-dominant"

principal who presided over a "bloated" management structure. He says he inherited a centralised system and he decentralised it: "That's democratising management, not creating a bloated one."

Professor Wardle must be reflecting on what a difference a couple of years makes. In early 2005, he was basking in the approbation of the inspectorate which described his leadership as "thoughtful, measured and effective".


The Deputy Lifelong Learning Minister has undermined part of the James Watt recovery plan which says that if it is not agreed by the end of this month, the college could be facing closure. But, following a visit to the college last week, Allan Wilson declared: "There is no question of James Watt College being closed as a result of the financial difficulties in which it finds itself." The Scottish Executive had an "ongoing commitment to sustain college provision and deliver for local learners", he said, and there were "collective aspirations to regain the vitality and success of James Watt College".

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