A principle to cling to as funding universe collapses

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Like all of us these days, ideologically adrift on a choppy post-modernist sea and lost in a fog of cultural relativism, I cast around for a rock to cling to, something definite and sure, a really credible mast to fly my flag from.

And I think I have found it: Heisenberg's principle of fundamental uncertainty. This principle lies at the heart of our understanding of the origin of the universe. If it can explain a simple thing like that, I thought, it might even be useful in helping me understand something really hard, like FE sector management.

Heisenberg's principle arises from attempts to track subatomic matter but extends to every known force and activity in the cosmos. It suggests that we can never be absolutely sure where anything is at any given time. We have all seen it at work in our daily lives on car keys, pens and spectacles. It also appears to solve that eternal mystery of every household: where all the odd socks go.

The big bang theory of creation relies on the principle of uncertainty. We in FE had our big bang too, you may remember, and called it incorporation. Before the big bang, nothing much happened. It was pretty dull. It was life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Then came the big bang, and everything started to expand at an incredible rate and every single piece of matter started to move away from every other piece, and life became fundamentally uncertain.

Time Lords came into being in Coventry, the epicentre of the Further Education Funding Council universe. They deemed it possible to expand and shrink at the same time and proved it by moving into a new building, leaving the middle bit empty, and packing the staff into a two-metre strip round the circumference. They were the masters of fundamental uncertainty.

We knew, of course, that expansion would not be infinite; eventually the universe would collapse in on itself again. Time, you see, bends round and meets itself coming in the opposite direction, rather like government policy. What we did not know, of course, was when the collapse would happen. This made planning great fun for colleges.

But, I hear you cry, the Time Lords have a new theory of convergence, and there's nothing uncertain about that. The universe may have expanded apparently randomly, but its contraction will be orderly and predictable, and we shall all cluster round a common Average Level of Funding, tight and incredibly dense, like a principals' conference. And all this shall happen, wonder of wonders, on the very cusp of the millennium.

What convergence seems to depend on, unless I have missed a stage in the argument, is a policy that hands out great dollops of cash to low ALF colleges for doing no more than they currently do, while obliging others to make their staff redundant - the conversion of Scrooge at one end and fiscal terrorism at the other.

That this will make for interesting politics will not have been lost on the Time Lords. So do not bet on it happening. I am simply applying Heisenberg's principle: the unified ALF is never where you think it is, nor is the price of every unit fixed.

Every now and then a new comet appears in the sky. Do you remember the Higginson comet, and the Tomlinson? For a few months we all stand and gaze in wonder at the strange but beautiful bright light in the heavens. We wonder what its import is for us. Does it foretell more resources? More work? Is is the harbinger of a great cultural shift? Shall we all at last be networked, each unto the other? Shall the last finally be first?

And then the light fades from the sky and things go on much as before. But beware Heisenberg. Just when we think we have the comet thing sussed, one will pop up and dazzle us all into new ways. Is the Kennedy comet luminous enough for that, I wonder?

I am learning to love Heisenberg. He represents shifting ground on which I can plant both feet firmly, especially at governors' meetings. Governors were around before the big bang, of course. In many cases, like Doctor Who, they took on a different appearance but were fundamentally the same, except that they now had a chief executive to guide them and take their ship into warp drive.

So when I am in a tight corner at a corporation meeting I call on Heisenberg and he never fails me: "Yes, I know the figure is beyond the agreed contract price, but how could we have predicted the asbestos?" "Of course, European money is a lottery, isn't it, and that explains line 16 on the new financial forecast."

"Yes, chairman, we are gearing up for the New Deal. No, chairman, we can't say for certain whether we shall have a contract, what sort of programmes we shall be expected to run, who our partners will be, what the clientele will look like nor how well it will be resourced. But we are gearing up. As always, we shall boldly go."

But we can't live like this forever, can we? What we need is something to overcome Heisenberg and get a little security back into our lives. When the science advisers to Star Trek discovered that Heisenberg's principle made subatomic transfer (beam me up, Scotty) impossible, they simply invented something called a Heisenberg compensator. "How does it work?" asked smart-assed journalists. "Extremely efficiently," replied the even smarter-assed science advisers That's what we need then: a Heisenberg compensator. If you ask the Time Lords how you can get your hands on a cheap second-hand model, they will tell you that you already have one. It is called a "strategic plan" and the Time Lords designed it themselves, so they know it will work.

Graham Jones is the principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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