'Colonial' expansion comes under fire

17th October 1997 at 01:00
Union leaders have asked ministers to investigate Britain's fastest-growing college, amid claims that the "juggernaut is out of control".

A letter sent to Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett this week questions the management, policies and courses of Bilston Community College.

Paul Mackney, West Midlands regional officer of lecturers' union NATFHE, accuses the management of "colonialism", attacks the college's huge network of partnerships, franchises and subsidiaries, and criticises plans to use a college-owned agency to employ part-time staff.

He said: "I am concerned that the college is now in crisis and that to get out of it, it feels it can only expand. Expansion for expansion's sake is a gross distortion of a community mission statement. The principal purpose of the college appears to have become to bring money in from any source to keep enough air in the balloon."

Last week Bilston governors launched a bid for a judicial review of this year's budget round. Managers claimed the Further Education Funding Council treated the college unfairly in imposing a 20 per cent cut for this academic year.

Principal Keith Wymer has claimed that 80,000 students will have to be turned away from Bilston because the college's cash claim was not met.

But in his letter to Mr Blunkett, Mr Mackney attacked Bilston's policy of developing a series of partnerships with community groups to run access courses across the Midlands and beyond, and raised a string of detailed questions about the college's operations.

He said: "There is a point where the export of community education into other colleges' catchment areas becomes colonialism. It actually impoverishes the other colleges' ability to interact with their own local communities. Similarly there is great unease about the content and quality of some of the local provision."

Senior college managers immediately attacked the union for failing to grasp the opportunities made available in the best interests of their members.

Frank Reeves, Bilston deputy principal, said they failed to understand the real world and community expectations. "When we have partnerships with community organisations, they have national networks and expect us to provide accordingly. And that creates more jobs for lecturers."

He accused Mr Mackney of colluding with the FEFC over cuts rather than backing the college. "The way union leaders are behaving is not so much turkeys voting for Christmas as turkeys demanding a right to tell the Ministry of Agriculture how their methods of slaughter can be improved."

Mr Mackney said: "It is almost impossible to develop a trusting partnership between the recognised unions and the chief executive of Bilston College. Given Keith Wymer's initial good intentions and labour movement origins, I can only speculate that this may be because the Bilston juggernaut is now careering out of control."

Dr Reeves said that since the set-up of the Ryton Employment and Training Agency, training standards had improved and job security increased. "We set up the agency not because we wanted to but because of changes in employment law beyond our control that would have made it very difficult to employ traditional part-time staff."

He added that in setting up the agency "we decided to develop the Bilston Community College company approach, making ourselves an employment agency".

Bilston College, page 34

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