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The tale of a land that lost its way

Once upon a time, not far away, there was a land whose towns and cities collected their own taxes. They spent some of the money on technical colleges, art schools and colleges of commerce. Some of the towns and cities were very proud of these colleges and they spent a lot on them. Some cared less and spent less. As a result, some colleges were very good and some not so good, but for 50 years after the war, more and more people became students every year.

Gradually many of the towns and cities got the efficiency bug. They looked on as companies like Morris and Austin and Wolseley and Riley came together in the British Motor Corporation and they said, "Let us, too, enjoy the economies of scale." They merged their colleges until some became polytechnics and even universities, and some became colleges of further education.

If the "economies of scale" were sometimes an illusion, nobody noticed because the colleges were always growing. Not only did they grow, but by now they often carried out complicated national schemes thought up by the Manpower Services Commission.

Bigger, richer, more compli-cated colleges were hard to manage, so principals became "chief executives". No longer could the head of the art school deal with business in the morning and paint in the afternoon.

Teachers' jobs were harder, too, but most were content because they earned more and taught less than school teachers. Before many years had passed, the colleges were so big and expensive and so much of their work followed national politics that the towns and cities agreed to give them away. "Let them be bodies corporate, funded by a national agency using a national formula."

The national formula gave less money to the colleges whose towns and cities had been proudest and most generous and more money to those which had been starved and neglected. The cries of pain or pleasure were to be quietened by even more growth.

But there was a snag. Perhaps because fewer children had been born, or perhaps because there were more places at university, or perhaps because people were richer and valued leisure above study, there was no growth. For the first time in generations it had stopped. The problem had to be disguised and "units" were invented and then farmed by the colleges.

The mirage of growth, like the mirage of economy-through-scale before it, came at a cost. Teaching was disrupted. Teachers had to be paid less to keep the colleges solvent now that the town or city was no longer there to put in more money. Some colleges became desperate and farmed units which were said to be people studying at home, or far away and out of sight, but who did not really exist. Towns such as Halton and Bilston were heard of in London for the first time and fear stalked the land.

A new national agency came to sweep away the fear and the fraud. It offered more money and more praise. It offered recognition as centres of vocational excellence or beacon colleges. Growth started once more. But fear had become a habit and fewer people now wanted to be chief executives.

The colleges in the towns and cities still stood where they always had, but they marched to the sound of a distant drum in Whitehall. Changes came and went to the rhythm of the quick, irregular heartbeat of national politics.

Who, burdened with the dead weight of 1,000 staff, 30,000 real students and pound;50 million worth of fixed assets, could keep up? Not everyone, and new names such as Sandwell and Salisbury and West Hertfordshire floated alarmingly into the national gaze.

What was to be done? Were the colleges really local, and if so how was the security of local relationships to be rekindled? (It was clear that the college governors could not offer security: they had no money). Were the colleges really national, and if so how could the insecurity of local employment by governors (who sometimes seemed awkward bedfellows in a national system) be eliminated?

Was the local arm of the national agency - which had money and the power to move courses and students - to become the employer of the college chief executive and all the staff? Were chief executives to become national employees, drafted to Bournemouth or Bury to work with governors who were now to be called local advisory panels? Or were the colleges to be instruments of regional governments which might recapture civic pride and which might, one day, have money and power?

For a while, the land remained silent.

The author wishes to remain anonymous

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