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Speaking out for the principals

The APC's new head envisages a strong lobbying role for college heads. Ben Russell reports.

Very few people can have landed a job representing colleagues across Britain while they were working out their notice.

Hilary Cowell, who is taking up her post as president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, is joining the growing band of principals who have run two colleges with her move from Filton College, Bristol, to the top job at the North East Surrey College of Technology in Epsom.

Ms Cowell, the first woman to represent principals in the association's 75-year history, inherits the presidency at a time of unprecedented change for college leaders.

More principals are changing jobs than ever before, fuelled by the Conservatives' changes to the teachers' pension scheme and by the raft of emerging legislation from the new Labour Government.

Colleges are welcoming the opportunities presented by Labour's Welfare to Work and University for Industry initiatives, but they are wary of detail that has yet to emerge from the new team of ministers.

This week, Ms Cowell pledged that the APC would occupy a key lobbying role as new policy emerges, but, as a board member of the Association of Colleges, she said there would continue to be unity for further education managers.

Both the APC's lobbying role and its help for the army of principals retiring this year will be high on the APC agenda at its annual conference next week.

Ms Cowell said: "The voice of chief executives is the most persuasive in the sector, just as the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) or the Training and Enterprise Council are influential.

"Nationally, FE colleges do not have a lot of political clout, and we are hopeful that this Government will improve matters.

"The Welfare to Work scheme is a natural for us and we will be working on the details to see how we can make it work.

"The University for Industry is also an interesting one. Its remit seems to be exactly the mission we offer in FE - working with business to deliver the training they need."

Ms Cowell echoes the concerns of many in FE about the disparities between student support for higher and further education students.

She is confident that colleges will slip easily into the type of regional planning frameworks that Labour is speaking of, but is more sceptical about the idea that much of the new work for colleges could be strictly tied to bids.

"I don't think principals are happy with the idea," she said.

"Colleges can bid for money, and work with the Single Regeneration Budget and apply for European money, but we have asked ourselves whether it is worth the time and effort to apply for money if there is little chance of getting it."

Ms Cowell's new job at North East Surrey, a position she will take up in September, has focused her mind on the frontier territory of further and higher education.

The college offers everything from entry-level GNVQs to doctorates, as part of a network of links with universities.

She is looking forward to the conclusion of Sir Ron Dearing's deliberations, and the much-floated expansion of so-called two-plus-two degrees, but called for the absorption of much higher education work into mainstream FE funding.

"The very least we would like to see is to have HNDs funded from the FEFC. " she said. "And I think the two-plus-two system would provide excellent opportunities for FE and HE to work more closely together. As it has been said, the campus student will be dead."

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