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Tall order for low-key minister;Further education

Sean Farren's ministerial appointment in Northern Ireland has scope for serious change, reports Paul McGill

COMPARED with Martin McGuinness's appointment, Sean Farren's nomination as minister for higher and further education, training and employment in Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive has been low-key.

The young-looking 60-year-old Dubliner, from the constitutional Social Democratic and Labour Party, was a senior lecturer in education at the University of Ulster before entering politics full-time.

His brief, in what has become known as the Department of Defeat, may well have more scope and interest than that held by McGuinness. Statutory definition of roles and budgets that are largely allocated to staffing and on-going services give the minister little room to change direction.

Higher and further education is more fluid. Dearing has recommended a big increase in places, the final shape of the Springvale campus has still to be decided, the mechanism to promote lifelong learning is being set up, FE is still seeking a clear role since incorporation 21 months ago and the community sector continues to innovate to attract the learning poor.

In addition, Farren is responsible for training and employment, including New Deal, placing him at the important interface between education and economic development. He will have to make sure, for example, that New Deal and training initiatives are helping women, Catholics and long-term unemployed people as much as they are helping people in areas that are already well supplied with jobs.

Contrary to common misconceptions, Sean Farren is not a junior minister, he holds his portfolio on an equal footing with all other executive members.

Politically, he may be in a stronger position than McGuinness because the SDLP holds four of the 12 places on the executive compared with two for Sinn Fein. He will also find less resistance to his proposals than will McGuinness, who is despised by most Unionists.

This does not make his job easy. A quick canvass of views from college heads, teacher unions and student leaders produced a long list of urgent issues, many of which need money. Many FE building are little better than slums and much of the equipment urgently needs upgrading.

When The TES caught up with Farren, he had already ploughed through a pile of early briefing papers and been on a hectic tour of engagements.

Farren, who is married with four children, is unable to be specific on several points until the executive draws up its programme of government.

"At this stage, the only thing you can expect from me is a commitment to listen."

It could be the 2001-02 financial year before the new ministers make a big impact on spendingpriorities and policies.

But he does have priorities. "Investment in people, social justice and innovation are the key themes, social justice is the underpinning value."

He knows he lacks detailed knowledge of FE and training, but he will not be a prisoner of the sector he comes from.

"Per capita spending in further education is lower," he accepts. "We have to look at these things and get a formula based on social justice and equity. It is not acceptable that classroom provision and staffing are different for similar courses."

Similarly, with the community sector: "What we need to do in the department is to come to a fair and just allocation for community education. We need to see firm proposals."

But he will have challenges in FE as well. One is to boost the number of people in courses related to economic growth, following a recent report highlighting the low numbers in IT and engineering.

He is under pressure to look at student funding. His guiding principle is that "we need to ensure that students can proceed through higher education without hardship" but accepts that restoring grants or abolishing fees would be very expensive. He has, however, promised a review, which will probably be carried out by his departmental committee.

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