Rough going for the regions

We never close" used to be the proud boast of the Windmill Theatre in London. Year-round access has become the touchstone for colleges too.

It is almost an article of faith nowadays that even at five o'clock on a Friday in August you can find evidence of intelligent life in further education. In the bad old days, if you wanted to pull a few fast ones over the college sector, all you had to do was wait for the summer when there was nobody about then steal as many marches as you could wish for. It's very different now. Or is it?

Over recent weeks in the North-west and elsewhere there has been an orgy of meetings to discuss how best to implement the Government's "new deal" programme, collaborative responses to the Kennedy report and, most important of all, the establishment of regional development agencies and how to lay claim to the money that goes with them.

At many of these meetings not only has further education been seriously under-represented (four people in an audience of 200 on one occasion), but our potential key role in these developments has been heavily discounted or ignored altogether. The local authorities, the Training and Enterprise Councils, employment services and the universities, to name only the most vociferous, have been rubbing their hands, and licking their lips, and lowering their snouts towards the brimming trough which we had fondly imagined was reserved for us.

Gatherings were regional, and hence the problem: our competitors are organised to give a regional view and we are not. The conveners of the meetings had no regional office to contact, so they sprayed invitations around the colleges which they thought might be interested. They often missed.

The senior college managers who did get along were the ones who happened not to be carrying out their personal research into the effects of the stronger pound on the price of wine in French shops, or studying the impact of tourism on the social infrastructure of Florida. But they could speak only for their own colleges, so what they said was bound to come out sounding like the sort of shrill special pleading which is best ignored. It could and should have been so different.

The Association of Colleges lobbies for us, but it has no regional structure. It has none because we, the colleges, decided not to give it one. How foolish we were. Not that it needs hindsight to see it. When the Association was set up, barely a year ago, it was obvious that regionalism was the coming thing, and coming fast.

By then we already had regional government officers, the Labour party was promoting the concept of regionalism, and the newish chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council was known to be considering how to revamp and fortify the FEFC's regional arrangements. These none-too-subtle signals were missed by those who advised them too. Those of us who fell into neither category were urged to vote for a single London-based, London-biased structure. A clear majority did so.

It is not just a case of "I told you so" point-scoring, however tempting that might be. We have as a sector lost out, no question. Because we have had no regional structure we have not been able to develop any clear regional college view which could have been articulated at these crucial meetings, and we have missed the obvious opportunity to convene the meetings ourselves, to take the lead for a change.

As a result we are back where we have usually been: trying to hitch a lift on a bandwagon which others have set in motion and are now controlling. Marginalised, in effect. This Government moves fast, and sets tough and demanding deadlines. Nothing wrong with that, of course, so it's no use complaining that we're not ready and need more time to assemble our performance.

Here in the North-west, and I have no doubt that the same applies elsewhere, we have been conducting hasty elections to form a representative group. That's the easy bit. The going will get rougher when that group begins the task of hammering out priorities and deciding who gets what on any issue which affects colleges differently. Particularly when large sums of money are involved.

We are very early into our new guise of caring, sharing colleges, featuring wall-to-wall collaboration, and the singing of each others' praises. Enforced competition has not been the best preparation for corporation.

We will not only have to get used to the idea that significant slices of future funding will get to us only by courtesy of some of the people whose throats we have been trying to cut for four years, but we will have to form "strategic partnerships" with them too. Hitler and Stalin had one of those, and that all ended in tears.

On the other hand, the really big international airlines have been entering into such partnerships, because they get efficiency gains from pooling some services while hanging on to their autonomy as independent corporations. They work together when they can, separately when they must. Let us hope that the majority of colleges want to share information about customers and ensure smooth transfers, rather than carve up Poland.

We will know that we have made it when human resource development (vocational education and training to you and me) is seen as a regional issue like transport or health, and when the regional office of the Association for Colleges can give clear, bankable commitments on behalf of the network of colleges about the part that they can play, individually or collectively. Preferably before the sky is dark with airborne pigs.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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