Spare a thought for the unfortunate 49ers

The first national conference of the Association of Colleges in Cardiff might have been a stimulating and uplifting event. There we were, together in a single organisation, united at last and able to draw strength from our common purpose of promoting and celebrating the work of the colleges. Except that it wasn't really like that at all. For a start we were by no means all there. Only 264 colleges were listed as having booked, and of those quite a number did not show up. There were some very conspicuous absentees among colleges which have been pretty good at supporting this sort of thing in the past.

Perhaps they could foresee the rather muted, bloodless and bleak nature of the conference and decided that they could have more fun staying at home and working on their accommodation strategies. There were some good bits, no question. The principal of an Australian college, Peter Day of the BBC and Trevor McDonald of ITN, by way of the Better English Campaign, were all worth hearing. For connoisseurs of the lugubrious, James Paice, our very own Minister of State, gave a performance to be treasured. His evident dislike of the sector for which he has some responsibility seemed to be based on the notion that too much media studies was bad for you, and that we were sloppily giving in to market forces in allowing customer choice in the matter.

Knots of people stood around muttering darkly into their plastic coffee cups. In earlier years and at other conferences you could have bet your budget that they were plotting somebody's downfall, and the flash of conspiracy and the smell of blood would brighten up the weary hour. This time you knew that they would be talking about pensions and, now that the Treasury has changed the rules about early retirement, how to get one. Nobody was admitting to having a plan to sink back into cushioned and index-linked comfort before they reached 60, but they all moaned about the loss of their freedom to do so if they felt like it.

At one moment a rumour lurched round the conference that 74 principals were going to quit by April 1997, the last date to enjoy the vanishing benefits. But since no names were mentioned it was impossible to say whether such a mass exodus would be good or bad for the sector. People on the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education exhibition stand reckoned that any 74 you could name would improve the sector by their departure. They were much more troubled about their members, many of whom have planned their career on the basis that they could retire any time after they reached 50. Many more of them might not have planned it, but have recently decided that they don't like the way things are going and want out as soon as they can afford it.

One principal, a very large fromage indeed, calculated that nearly 60, mainly long-serving, lecturers would be banging on her door asking for early retirement, and she was off to the Education Lecturing Services' stand to see if they would be able to whistle up some temporaries to cover the lessons from April to June.

It's now or never for the over-50s, who have got some hard thinking to do - and fast. Spare a thought for the unfortunate 49ers, a term which used to refer to those optimists who set off to California in search of gold, most of whom died in penury. Henceforth it will mean those wretched souls condemned by an accident of birth to spend another decade in the classroom or face compulsory redundancy.

Hardhearted commentators, and there were some of those holding court in Cardiff, will say that the changes merely put teachers into the same boat as other workers, who never have had any access to early retirement. True, but teachers have always looked on the arrangement as one of their terms of appointment, to be weighed up alongside salary and holidays. They are going to lose it without any sort of compensation.

You might have thought this was the sort of issue to provoke a furious debate at the conference, with fiery speeches and ringing declarations. Well, actually, no it didn't. There were some who wanted to at least discuss a motion and perhaps even think about a campaign of protest, but the platform would not hear of it. In the subdued mood of the conference they got away with it, since nobody wanted to be the one to jeopardise the frail unity of the sector by insisting on something which our new masters clearly did not want.

Stagnation is what it felt like - the first stage of decay. The list of things to be gloomy about is impressively long, but then it always has been. Nobody loves us, but then nobody ever did. There was something eerie about the sense of the past revisited, reinforced by the reaction to the after-dinner speech by Max Boyce, himself a contestant in the where-are-they-now competition. We fell about, split our corporate sides and banged approval on the table at a routine which not only could have been delivered any time in the past 15 years but undoubtedly has been - many times.

So now we have a single voice for the sector, or at least we will do when the rump of the sixth-form colleges sidle in. Almost everybody who spoke from the platform congratulated us on this giant leap, and they were of course right. Yet, at the end of the conference, looking round at the massed ranks of grey suits inhabited by matching personalities, an observer wondered aloud what the new voice would say and how it would make the message compulsive listening.

We won't get anywhere by holding out the bowl and asking for more. Yet we seem to be as far away from a compelling and shared vision for the colleges as ever.

Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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