To be Franck, it wasn't a miracle

21st April 2000 at 01:00
ANOTHER college arts and media festival has come and gone. With the exception of the problem over resurrection, which could hardly have been foreseen, all went off very well. Whether you got a greater thrill from watching students singing their hearts out and dancing their feet off, or from listening to ethereally beautiful piano playing in a hushed college hall by an artist equally at home in the great concert venues of the world, the important point was that the programme was so varied that everybody's taste was tickled sometime during the week.

Choice was the word that summed up much of the week. The various audiences were made up of amateur people using their judgment about how to spend their money. More than once during the week I reflected on how the Government's infatuation with targeting means that we all get less choice. Just as pensioners can have free TV licences, but not the cash equivalent to buy what they like, colleges can have extra funds, but only for specific activities.

The idea that Whitehall, or even Coventry, knows best is absurd when applied to local conditions. The catchment area of this college is as varied as that of any other, and it certainly does not match any statistically-

derived national profile. This is not a microcosm of England. It cannot be right to take away the power to act from those who manage colleges and who are best placed to know what works locally. If we are used merely as a conduit to move public money around, the experience and skill which college managers have developed is ignored. We are treated like unreliable children.

Hypothecated funding, the fancy term for targeting, is what we do with pocket money for the kids: so much for the bus fare, school dinners andclothes. We treat them like that because we don't think they are ready for the tough, adult stuff like backing their own judgment. Their crime is being too young, but what have we managers of colleges done wrong? Surely this can't be yet another penalty which we all have to endure because of the failing of a notorious few?

Virtually all the additional cash which David Blunkett wrenched from the grasp of the Treasury has targets attached. So we have to show gratitude when we are given money to upgrade the IT competence of our staff, but God help us if we want to use the cash to up their salaries. We get some extra to appoint a couple of lecturers, but only to disciplines which the FEFC thinks are important. I tried to suppress the thought that we were being profoundly patronised by listening to the music and watching the dancers.

So, this resurrection thing. What happened was that a man rang the enquiry number for the festival wanting to know more about the programme. The festival administrator ran through some of the highlights, including a Franck sonata. She got no further as the man whooped with joy and promptly ordered 40 tickets, to be paid for on the night. There was clearly an unmet demand for French music in East Lancashire.

Sure enough, a coach drew up on the night and a party of middle-aged ravers got out, most of them singing My Way. The penny dropped very slowly. They thought we had managed to secure the services of Ol' Blue Eyes. Either news of his death had not yet reached these shores, or the miraculous powers of colleges to transform lives had been assumed to include resurrection. Ah well, further education fails again.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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