A tough new world
The background is, as ever, economic. Society demands two things: a better trained and qualified workforce for the economy; lower public spending and taxation for the next election.
The only way these can be reconciled is by sharply increasing the efficiency of public services. As a result, budgets squeeze tighter and unit costs are driven lower: now we learn that FE is regarded as a soft target in the current public-expenditure round. Yet many colleges are already having to make real year-on-year efficiency gains in double figures: some are threatened with bankruptcy. They are responding in the only way they can - by learning and using the tools of commercial management.
In many ways this has been an improvement. Colleges increasingly work by setting demanding but achievable targets; they know what things cost, they ask their customers for their views.
The new tough business climate is made more demanding by the pace of change. New qualifications and technologies must be mastered, often with inadequate preparation and training. On top of this has come increased accountability and transparency at all levels. It's no fun to be asked for the first time why your recruitment has dropped, or your students have left. The sense of threat is greater when you see colleagues laid off or retired early because of shifts in student demand or cuts in budgets. And all this takes place amid a protracted industrial relations dispute .
Managing this world makes great demands. Middle managers have responded magnificently in colleges all over the country. They are the ones actually improving access, quality and efficiency. Perhaps, with less money and time, sometimes mistakes are made and corners cut.
But to take a brief look at what is happening, call it bullying and walk away, is to misrepresent and cheapen the debate.
What the sector needs is a rational recognition that FE needs a stable unit of resource, and some central management of the pace of change. The latter may even be more crucial than the first. Perhaps we had to change college governance, or funding methods, or qualifications, or information demands, or teacher contracts, or planning systems, or quality assurance systems - but surely not all at once. The present turmoil is a sign of lack of co-ordination and direction from the top; that's the challenge to the newly merged Department for Education and Employment. Colleges need support, and they need resources. If all they get is a cheap analysis that demonises those who have to keep things going, it just lets central government off the hook.
Adrian Perry is principal of Lambeth College, south London.