Staff at Coleg Gwent are still paying te price for management problems that surfaced three years ago. Martin Whittaker reports on a crisis that has prompted called for colleges to return to local authority control.
David Mason still recalls his darkest day. He had been principal of stricken Gwent Tertiary College for just three months when there was a knock on his office door.
"A junior person from the finance department came to see me to say that the salary bill for July was about pound;1.8 million and we didn't have any money in the bank. What should she do? I remember sitting in this office thinking, 'This is the first time in my career that I've been faced with the insolvency of the organisation that I'm leading.' We were actually broke."
It was July 1998, and he had just inherited one of the biggest disasters to hit the FE sector. The college was nearly pound;7m in debt. The finance director had left, so had the human resources director.
Gwent police and the Department for Education and Employment were investigating the college's spending of pound;3m of European Social Fund money and Mason could not communicate with staff because lecturers were in industrial dispute over pay and refusing to talk to management.
Today, Mason and his team are turning the ship around. The biggest FE college in Wales, and one of the biggest in the United Kingdom, has been re-branded and re-packaged as Coleg Gwent. Financially, the college is looking healthier - Mason estimates it will show a pound;200,000 surplus for this year. The long-running pay dispute with staff was settled in May and the police inquiry has ended - the Crown Prosecution Service found no case to answer. The college still has to pay back the European money, but has agreed a plan with the Department for Education to repay it over three years.
"The picture currently is quite good," says Mason. "We've implemented very firm management controls - not just controls but also the monitoring of those controls."
Mason, 56, graduated as a mathematician. "I think by nature, mathematicians are problem-solvers," he says. "I quite like trying to sort things out."
His first principalship was at Stroud College in the early 1980s. He took five years out of the sector to run the Civil Aviatin Authority training college in Bournemouth. Then in 1993 he took the helm at Amersham amp; Wycombe College, Buckinghamshire.
He admits he relished the challenge of running Wales's biggest college. "But I didn't know how bad things were. I'll be quite honest with you, I don't think anyone knew how bad they were."
A National Audit Office report found that Gwent had been plunged into financial crisis by a restructuring exercise which more than doubled the number of college managers. The former principal, Sue Parker, who resigned in July 1997 with a pound;42,000 pay-off, did not consult governors adequately over the changes. Meanwhile, staff at the college's training shop in Usk ran up thousands of pounds of spending unaccounted for.
Mason admits that turning the college around has been a rough and often thankless ride. He has found himself embattled on all sides. His relationship with local MPs and members of the National Assembly has been uneasy, but he believes it's improving.
"They were so outraged that this could have been allowed to happen and all this money disappear. And there was very much a feeling of: Why hadn't the right people paid?
"I think there was a lot of pent-up frustration: Why haven't management suffered? And when I arrived, I epitomised management, and for the first year I was coming out with nothing but more bad news."
Mason is also saddened over how difficult it has been to carry staff with him in his quest to turn the college around. On St David's Day this year, staff held a half-day strike over pay and conditions. They carried placards showing photos of him with the slogan "David is no Saint." And a Mori poll last year found staff were strongly disillusioned with senior management.
"I think there's no doubt that we are still struggling with this," he says. "The perception of staff is that senior management at this college, together with the corporation, plunged it into a huge deficit.
"Lots of people lost their jobs, lots of people were demoted, people didn't have a pay rise for two years, and those responsible all got off scot-free. And we as staff have been punished and are paying the price. I think that still exists quite strongly around the college. It is changing slowly."