Corridors of power mapped

10th May 1996 at 01:00
When things began to go badly wrong for Russia in the First World War, the tsar appointed a minister of war who knew nothing about the armed forces.

The tsar thought it would help to bring a fresh mind to the problems. Those who concluded that the appointment of David Melville, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University, as chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council was analogous are, however, quite wrong.

The incorporated sector is too young to have grown its own serious candidate for that sort of job, although in a few years' time David Melville's successor may well be found among the current crop of new, streetwise chief executives who are at ease with our curiously half-lit world of freedom moderated by regulation. For the time being we will be looking for three things from the new man at Coventry.

We want some of that clear vision and firm leadership from which Middlesex University has benefited in recent times. The leadership will be important in maintaining the strict ethical rectitude which has marked the funding council's operations, and which needs to be the norm among all colleges too.

We don't want any extra controls, but we do need to develop our own codes of practice about, for example, predatory trading, negative publicity about competitors and admissions policies. Mavericks and deviants must be shamed into compliance.

He will have to find a way to give that leadership without giving us hyper-detailed instructions. Guidance by marker-buoys and harbour lights will be sufficient for us to find our way home. We also want reassurance. The sector is nervous about targets, funding and losing the interest and the attention of the Government and others.

As a leading member of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals David Melville can look after himself in a dark alley, and the CVCP itself has squared up to its own funding council more than once. An international expert on the subject of blood, he should know how best to extract it from the stony Treasury. It is obvious that we are strapped for cash, and if the Treasury tries to tell him otherwise, he will draw upon his years in Lancashire and say that he knows tripe when he sees it.

It would be good if he could find the means to bring back a sense of fun and excitement to the sector by reminding us all that accountability, rectitude and abundant auditing don't mean that you cannot have a laugh.

He'll need friends in the colleges, and he will no doubt soon find out that the shortest journey in FE is that from credible young Turk to out-of-touch old fogey. He will learn that consensus on anything is impossible, and that no group has the monopoly on common sense. He will also note that far from feeling uneasy about this cantankerousness, we glory in it and call it diversity.

Those who know him best reckon that his willingness to listen and the speed of his judgment are impressive. He will need both if he is to maintain the tricky relationship between the Government, the funding council and the colleges. In particular, the council must speak up for the sector on funding matters, and not be seen as merely an instrument of Government policy.

David Melville is a big man, whose height helps to convey a sense of eminence, rather than hauteur. Eminent people are not fastidious about their diet, which may, from time to time, include humble pie.

He recently said that "all the country's needs focus on further education", and we'd all raise a glass to that. He understands the role of higher education within FE colleges, indeed few are better placed to do so. He ought to be able to articulate the changing nature of colleges, in that they are and will remain essentially local in their focus, even as they develop through distance learning, franchising and services supported by the new technologies.

He comes with a mental map of the corridors of Whitehall, the keys to many doors and a familiarity with the major figures behind them. Given his head and our support, he will not allow the sector to fall back into the black hole of public indifference from which incorporation rescued it. As one who once ran an astronomy department, he knows all about black holes. That may be a stronger qualification for office than the Russian war minister had. The Russian front collapsed in chaos. We will be better led.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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