What conclusions should we draw from the Stoke-on-Trent College debacle? One rotten apple or a noxious barrel? Stoke's Pounds 8 million debts following miscalculations in recruitment may not be typical. But all college staff can recognise "Stoke-like tendencies".
Each year since incorporation, the Government has used funding levers for expansion in student numbers at lower unit costs. This year, a 4.7 per cent expansion is required within 1.6 per cent funding cuts.
Stoke's fantasy expansion provokes fundamental questions about colleges as fake firms instead of as a public service. Any new government will need to assess the achievements and failings of the present system of running colleges since incorporation in April 1993, when business governors replaced local democratic accountability.
Some say the Pounds 5m collapse at Coventry Technical College in 1992 proves that the cause is not incorporation. But the Coventry episode, which occurred while colleges were given a two-year period of local financial management, was a forewarning of the dangers once local control was loosened on college executives who saw themselves as new enterprise voyagers.
However efficient the Further Education Funding Council officers may be, there still seems to be a fault-line running through the council's financial procedures. The longer the problem went on, the larger Stoke's debts grew.
The FEFC said: "The college did not know early enough it was undershooting its recruitment targets. The college chose to resubmit its data, which we often allow." (The Times, December 13, 1996). This was in April 1996 when the FEFC had received no returns at all for 1995-96 and the first return had been due by December 1995.
Kevin Farrell, new corporation chair, is reported as saying there were "no doubts expressed by any internal or external audit reports or any inspections of previous ISR (student number) returns, no queries or anything to suggest there was going to be a serious shortfall. Even in September the college was actively considering a third campus" (TES, December 6, 1996).
But there were major problems at Stoke before the financial difficulties were detected. The narrow focus on computer-generated data has prevented college principals being held properly to account.
A telephone call to almost any employee of Stoke-on-Trent College would have raised questions about inflated enrolments and the fatigue resulting from being bullied to achieve fantasy expansion targets. A mass meeting of 600 Stoke staff felt strongly that the FEFC monitoring was inadequate.
The inability of the FEFC to consider anything other than matters relating to finance or student numbers remains the fundamental weakness in the system. They appear impervious to representations made about the human costs of the present funding mechanism.
This may be because the FEFC's role is larger than the funding and inspection of colleges. It is also expected to hit under-funded government targets which may lead it to back speculative ventures.
The present system seems to give almost unlimited power to principals as chief executives.The absence of proper appointment and promotion procedures means that they can surround themselves with acolytes who never question their decisions. In practice, criticism is vital to a healthy college.
It is hard to deny there have been benefits from freeing colleges from local bureaucracy: new courses, reaching new groups of learners, and even getting repairs done.
But for many staff in colleges the last four years have been utterly wretched. For staff, this has led to a catalogue of misery: removal of local control, inadequate checks on principals, phantom classes with no students, dubious franchising of courses to industry and the community, destructive competition with neighbouring colleges, and gimmicks to attract students.
There has been pressure on staff to pass students, adopt a pile-'em-deep, teach-'em-cheap approach. Abuse of "confidentiality" to prevent accountability, new contracts with no limits to excessive teaching and excessive workloads followed.
There is also greater use of disciplinary procedures, often based on solicited but poorly substantiated student complaints; bullying management styles, huge wage increases and perks for those at the top and the lowest pay rises for long-serving, part-time or agency staff; exhaustion, depression, stress-related illness and burn-out leading to unprecedented levels of retirement because of ill-health. One in seven lecturers has taken redundancy or early retirement.
The feelings of many lecturers were summed up by the Stoke lecturer who said: "We hate a job and place we once loved."
This is not meant as a blanket condemnation. Most business governors see their unpaid contribution as an act of public service and most principals work long hours to attempt to achieve the impossible.
What NATFHE is saying is that this Government's changes to the FE college system, like those to the NHS, are misconceived and that parties intent on government should take heed.
Against the early l990s myth that everything in education can be achieved by manipulation of the cash nexus, we need a recognition of properly-rewarded public service under democratic control and involving employees in the running of their institutions.
NATFHE has asked MPs to press Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard to establish a fully independent public inquiry with a chair who enjoys the confidence of staff and the people of Stoke-on-Trent. Such an inquiry should have a remit far wider than finance and student numbers.
An inquiry into the FE system might conclude that it would be better to plan expansion rather than to allow colleges to engage in cut-throat competition for education's financial crumbs.
Paul Mackney is West Midlands regional officer for NATFHE