Skills supremo has a soft spot for colleges

Neil Munro talks to the man with arguably one of the most pivotal responsibilities in the Scottish Executive

EDDIE FRIZZELL must have heard all the jokes by now. "New enterprise boss comes out of jail"; "Lifers' loss is gain for lifelong learning." The quips in fact tell us quite a bit about the man in charge of the huge empire that is the Scottish Executive's department of enterprise and lifelong learning, responsible for everything from Hyundai to HNDs.

If anyone can handle that kind of challenge, someone who has survived the prison service relatively unscathed and apparently zestful must be that man. Rooftop protests will have been rather more unsettling than any threats from the FE College Lecturers' Association.

Mr Frizzell, aged 54, has had an unusual career trajectory for a civil servant - and not just his move from prison boss to presiding over colleges and universities. He is not exactly a career civil servant, having started as a marketing economist with the Scottish Milk Marketing Board.

He joined the Scottish Office in 1976 and has worked in agriculture and fisheries, with the UK delegation to the European Communities in Brussels and in the Scottish Office finance division. His career took off in 1989 when he was appointed director of Locate in Scotland, the Government's high-profile inward investment arm. He became head of the Scottish Prison Service in 1991, just before it came out from under the wing of the Scottish Office to be reincarnated as an "executive agency".

In the process he has acquired a reputation of being "very positive, approachable and pragmatic", as one former colleague put it.

Mr Frizzell points out that education and business have been conjoined before in the former Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. He argues that this provides more "synergy", allowing education officials to be more alert to what is happening on the industry front and vice versa. He adds, with just a hint of relief, that a larger department also makes it easier to move money around.

As one crack is papered over another, of course, could open. The new divide now is between the schools division and Mr Frizzell's post-school department. There are shared interests such as Higher Still, the careers service and the education for work agenda. But he acknowledges that links between the two must be preserved in the interests of "joined-up government".

This is not his first exposure to the post-school sector. He had a four-year spell in the mid-1980s as an assistant secretary in charge of higher education. That coincided with the appearance of the report from the Scottish Tertiary Education Advisory Council which, ahead of its time, recommended that the universities should come under the Scottish Office.

Mr Frizzell must now marvel at the speed of events, from the advisory council's report to the point in less than 20 years where, not only are the universities devolved, but where every movement by Mr Frizzell and his colleagues is scrutinised by Holyrood. Indeed, civil servants are even held accountable for other people's movements, or lack of them: he has already had the pleasure of being summoned not once but twice to appear before the Parliament's audit committee.

There, he made a good fist of defending the record of the FE sector and of the Skillseekers programme, both of which had earned critical reviews from the National Audit Office. He describes this outbreak of democracy as "a robust experience" and adds: "It certainly increases the amount of our work that is focused on parliamentary accountability. The equivalent of appearing before the House of Commons public accounts committee would have been very rare."

But he is reassured that "the committees are not interested in blood sports with officials. They seemed genuinely interested in getting at the facts and engaging with the Executive".

Mr Frizzell came to the job just when his entire team was about to be relocated to Glasgow. The city would not frighten a former Paisley Grammar man but some officials chose to remain in Edinburgh, causing a hiatus in the appointment of staff at the very time when the post-16 scene is undergoing more change, and awaiting more key policy decisions, than ever before.

The most high-profile issue was the aftermath of the Cubie report on student finance, which swept away upfront tuition fees. This meant the departmental coffers had to cough up pound;27 million in this financial year which Mr Frizzell says he has succeeded in finding from that most generous if mysterious of budgets headed "unspent allocations".

A more serious sum of pound;50 million is required to sustain the reform in future years and he now awaits with trepidation the outcome of the Government's forthcoming UK spending review (son of the 1999-2002 "comprehensive spending review").

But there are also a raft of other matters in the in-tray. Responses have to be fashioned to Opportunity Scotland on lifelong learning, although that has almost been subsumed in the launch of the Scottish University for Industry (now rebranded learndirect scotland) and individual learning accounts. This is not to be confused with another initiative called Opportunities and Choices, which focuses on education and training for 16 to 18-year-olds, up to 16,000 of whom are estimated not to be in education, training or a job. "Decisions are expected soon" is all Mr Frizzell will say.

His department is also responsible for the - so far sluggish - drive to create 20,000 modern apprenticeships by 2003, on which another pound;3 million has just been lavished to widen its appeal beyond traditional industries and beyond boys. Then there is the action plan which followed the Beattie report on special needs training. The review of the careers service is another task.

The Government's review of the enterprise networks, which will have many implications for training and further education, completes this major agenda.

Alongside all that, Mr Frizzell has to wrestle with the condundrum that is lifelong learning. There is, as the economists say, a supply side and a demand side. But he is optimistic that the combination of learndirect scotland and individual learning accounts, with an initial budget of pound;39 million, provides an opportunity to crack the problem.

The challenge, he says, is to embed not just "a culture of enterprise but also a culture of lifelong learning, which means partly getting people to understand they have a responsibility to improve their own skills".

The Executive, Mr Frizzell says, recognises there has to be a major marketing effort, led by learndirect scotland, to take the message to the public. On the other side of the equation, there are "encouraging signs" that FE colleges in particular are now more adept at meeting both local and business requirements. He is fully signed up to his minister's mission - which Henry McLeish describes as putting "learning at the heart of enterprise".

Meanwhile life must go on and Mr Frizzell has to ensure colleges and universities continue to deliver. He acknowledges that the FE sector has come through difficult years and the 36 per cent funding increase over the three years covered by the comprehensive spending review was intended to reflect that.

"FE colleges should be proud of what they have done," he says. "They have come through the experience of incorporation with very little training or preparation, they have successfully attracted increasing numbers of students, they are addressing the skills agenda and they are meeting the needs of businesses and of their own communities."

According to colleagues, Mr Frizzell has "a balanced view of his portfolio, someone who understands that further education and training are absolutely at the heart of learning and economic activity rather than an add-on to higher education".

Life would probably not be worth living if he believed otherwise. His wife works in an Edinburgh FE college.

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