Another spin of the chariot wheel at the Forum

7th February 2003 at 00:00
READERS of this column will be heartily relieved to know that, according to Ros Micklem, chair of the FE principals' forum, the bad press colleges receive is unjustified and troubles are "isolated and sporadic" (TESS, December 6).

Far be it from me - who, as an ordinary gladiatorial studies lecturer, earns his daily crust from teaching students - to play down the efforts of my colleagues. There may not be lecturers' blood on the certificates (as there was once miners' blood on the coal - and maybe blood on the oil in the future), but we do work hard for our students.

And there is nothing wrong with "good news" stories coming out of Scottish FE (even if the evangelical verve is a bit unnerving for us pagans).

However, there is a wee problem. In the same way that apples may be good for you but some can be rotten (or that Americans and Iraqis can be decent human beings despite Bush and Saddam), we have to ask whether FE's good news is due to management or those who deliver the education to the students. A plea to hold back from criticising managements which bully and victimise employees (and the list of colleges where this has happened grows longer every month) would be to condone such practices.

It could be answered that such management practices only affect a small number of individuals directly. This may be true. However, the impact on general morale is much greater (and that, after all, is what the exercise is about - pour encourager les autres). There is another issue, though. Is staff victimisation an "isolated and sporadic" exception to the rule or an extreme manifestation of a general pattern?

A window into the Scottish FE industrial relations world was provided recently by a fascinating survey into the impact of incorporation conducted by the College Lecturers' Association. With replies from more than half of Scotland's colleges, delivered by both management and lecturers, its evidence is robust (from the point of view of statistical validity).

It is interesting to note where management and the workforce agreed, and where they differed. Clear areas of agreement include the fact that there has been a growth of administration since 1994, as well as an expansion of class sizes, and the number of courses that staff have to teach.

The areas of disagreement are rather more numerous. Lecturers are convinced that teaching staff levels have fallen. Management says they have not. (So what was the point of all those waves of redundancies which many involuntarily "volunteered" for?).

Lecturers say there has been an increase in administrative duties done by teaching staff. Managers disagree - but try telling anyone who teaches Higher Still that one.

Two final points provide us with a conundrum. Lecturers feel they are excluded and not consulted. Managers believe they listen to us attentively.

At the same time, lecturers believe morale ranges from not so bad through bad to very bad. Managements overwhelmingly rate staff morale as good?

Now, either managements aren't listening attentively to their workforces after all, or maybe a ground down workforce is the sort of morale that managers want. In life we are often faced with difficult choices over what to believe. Did Clinton really "never have sex with that woman"? Are we really clones of space aliens? Is the Scottish Parliament building a value-for-money bargain?

Well to help you decide for the FE survey, let's be democratic. There are 5,000-plus lecturers and a few hundred board of management members. The truth is out there.

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