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A Stubbs' portrait of ethics and energy

The appointment of an ombudsman for colleges this week puts in place the last piece of a picture which has been Sir William Stubbs' abiding vision of a sector at the vanguard of education and training reforms.

The last meeting of the Further Education Funding Council at which Sir William presided as chief executive, saw another crucial piece put in place. Professor John Tomlinson presented his final recommendations on the rights of students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Both the ombudsman's appointment and the Tomlinson report symbolise what Sir William holds dearest in education: equity, ethics and a contract between establishments and the individuals they serve.

Awareness of the post-school sector had been raised as never before in Parliament, industry and the wider community since the 1993 Further and Higher Education Act, he told The TES. "It has resulted in a fresh intake of energy in a system that was known to be entrepreneurial."

As he steps down as chief executive, he eschews self-aggrandisement. All credit, he insists, goes to a backroom team which has proved wrong those who scorned the idea of an FE system nationally funded but locally delivered.

The FEFC emerged as "credible, convincing and commanding confidence," he insists. It became a model of probity for Lord Nolan during his inquiry into standards in public life.

Sir William believes this is partly because the council avoided the traps of "cabals, hidden influences and lobby groups" which have dogged so many quangos. But the need for an independent appeals body was always to the front of his thinking.

The appointment of John Bevan as ombudsman sets a precedent in education and puts the final seal of independence on a sector steered by a council which is, he insists, not top-down but provides a safety net. "John is a stickler for detail and accuracy. No one can criticise him."

Another major achievement, he says, is the development of a quality assurance system "unparalleled" in education as it promotes greater independence for the colleges through self-assessment.

Under Sir William, the sector has grown to command more than Pounds 3 billion public cash annually, with 500 institutions supporting 3 million individual learning agreements with students. The Tomlinson report, due this autumn, will show just how effective that system has become, he says. "It is the absolute converse of what was predicted. People warned four years ago that it [the FEFC] would be very remote and detached."

Sir William remains deeply sceptical of the prospects for a national merger of colleges and universities. No Government was likely to invest powers over Pounds 8 billion of public cash in one committee. He doubted too whether a single body could encompass the diversity without making damaging compromises.

Rather, he believes that FE will come much more to the fore. On a recent visit to Australia, he witnessed a sharp increase in the fortunes of their colleges. Graduates were turning back to FE for qualifications to make them employable, and their number exceeded those on access courses seeking a pathway to degree courses.

As a single sector, the British colleges must face up to continued efficiency drives. With 20 per cent expansion and 20 per cent efficiency savings over the past three years, the entire sector had already been re-engineered.

"It is probably inevitable that it will have to go further. The published expenditure plans make it clear the government of the day is going to expect that," he says.

But this must not be viewed with pessimism as a fait accompli. The FEFC inspectorate should remain vigilant, warning of the effects of the cuts. "In some areas it is causing anxiety. I cannot say we stand on the brink of collapse of the system. But it is causing serious concern."

Sir William is highly pragmatic about public spending policy and has few regrets about how the council has managed radical reform at a time of limited public cash.

"If I have one personal disappointment, it is that when colleges were 'nationalised' they [ministers] did not make provision for students nationally." Failure to rationalise discretionary support, fees and maintenance awards had caused deep problems.

"It was perfectly possible to put up a system for further education student support nationally without an extra penny being spent," he said. The inequities led to a malaise, a symptom of which was the flurry of bursaries to grab students and the cost of expensive transport systems.

On capital spending too, he is clearly dismayed. The Hunter survey was carried out to bring college buildings up to health and safety standards. But hopes of more were swept aside by the Private Finance Initiative. For it to bring what colleges need "is expecting a lot," was the only comment he would make.

"But the PFI is the only show in town and so one has got to be optimistic and use it as best one can," he says.

But he leaves the council with an education and funding framework in place which, he says, should last a long time. Having said that, he believes the first college to face bankruptcy is closer than ever. If and when it happens, he would like to see constructive support from the entire sector.

"National common good is driven by collective self-interest, and it is in the interests of the sector to have all colleges working as efficiently as possible."

But the things which can blight an entire sector have been eradicated, he says. Fairer guidelines on franchising courses with other agents, and an end to predatory trading, are in place.

The next big revolution facing FE, he concludes, is lifetime learning, OU-style provision of courses through information technology to the home and workplace.

"Going forward five years, if they don't do it others will, through new technology." But he is confident in the sector's entrepreneurial spirit. "The big breakthrough in lifetime learning will come in FE colleges, I am sure. "

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