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Streetfighting knight

Estelle Maxwell assesses the achievements of the outgoing FEFC chief executive Sir William Stubbs.

Sir William Stubbs, soon to be rector of the London Institute, has become a mythical figure during his time at the Further Education Funding Council.

The role of Wild West hero is not an obvious one for the dour Scot, noted for ensuring the newly incorporated polytechnics got off to a flying financial start by canny interpretation of the funding system.

Nonetheless he has earned himself a reputation as a deadly marksman who, armed to the hilt with incontestable facts, has trail-blazed a course as chief executive of the FEFC. Many feel he is irreplaceable.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England and a former colleague at the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council, said: "He has gun-slinger's eyes. He can fix people with a stare which can melt an FE college principal at a hundred yards - and rightly so.

"He is a superb analyst. When he argued through our case for funding with the Department for Education he had planned everything. Right from the beginning, even before the board had met he had worked out and targeted where we needed the money and that was for equipment."

No one can remember who first remarked on the gun-slinger's eyes, but the description has ricocheted around the sector and is seen as particularly apt by those who have come into contact with Sir William around the negotiating table.

Rumour merchants have already opened books on likely replacements - largely from top civil service and university ranks. Best odds were on Sir Geoffrey Holland, former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, David Forrester, passed over for the top post when the department merged with Employment, and former Treasury man Tony Clark who helped set up the HEFC and FEFC.

Many insist Roger Brown, chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, is a contender. Equally, Peter Knight is cited as having "the experience and qualities to take the reins".

Michael Shattock, registrar of Warwick University and the man who brought Wilmorton College to heel, is also a close and respected friend of Sir William. He is a good outside bet.

After three years at the FEFC, four years as chief executive of the PCFC and six years as education officer at the Inner London Education Authority, Sir William's reputation as a financial and strategic manager has spoken for itself.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, said Sir William succeeded in putting FE on the map.

"He is a very elegant street-fighter," he said. "I have had to deal with Bill Stubbs and it is not very easy negotiating with him. Across the bargaining table he has as many tricks up his sleeves as any professional negotiator could hope to have."

To err is human, according to the book of Proverbs, but as one colleague confided: "He is absolutely confident he is right in everything he does - especially when he is wrong."

Professor David Hargreaves, a former chief inspector at ILEA, said Sir William had faced an uphill battle, adding: "He was a brilliant administrator and a very passionate educationist and the two do not always go together."

He said: "I think he would have given raising kids' achievement in schools a much higher priority than it got, he would have reduced the budget and devolved much more money from County Hall. But even his achievements were not enough to save ILEA.

"There is a kind of steeliness to Bill Stubbs, he was a cool, steely, tough leader."

With a gun-slinger's eyes.

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