Doubts cast on vision as balloon goes up in Bilston

17th October 1997 at 01:00
High ideals lie behind the expansion of Britain's fastest-growing college, but its operations have generated controversy, reports Ben Russell.

Bilston Community College bills itself as "situated in the attractive West Midlands region of England". In reality the town, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, bears the scars of its past in heavy industry. But the fame of Bilston is drawn not from its location, but from its reputation as the fastest-growing college in the land.

Bilston college has ballooned in recent years - its budget nearly trebled in the previous academic year and more than doubled the year before.

Student numbers have rocketed, part-time enrolment trebling in 1996 and full-time numbers doubling the year before.

It has been an unprecedented expansion - built on the back of one man's vision of community education for the 21st century.

Principal Keith Wymer has worked tirelessly to put Bilston college on the map. He has lobbied hard at conferences, through the press and in his books to convert politicians and journalists to his ideas of community education, arguing against traditional elitism and making the case for open-access courses based in, and inseparable from, the communities they serve.

These are proposals applauded by many in further education - but they have brought Bilston into open conflict with the college's paymasters and now prompted calls for a ministerial inquiry from lecturers.

Bilston lost out heavily when Conservative ministers axed funding for college growth in January.

The so-called demand-led funding which gave college access to a bottomless fund to pay for increased student numbers at a cut-price rate served the college well.

But when the source of cash dried up, those colleges claiming large amounts of the demand-led money lost out heavily. Bilston now has Pounds 4 million less to spend this year than it did last year - Pounds 8m less than the college applied for.

Mr Wymer and his board of governors are angry. Last week they launched a claim for a judicial review, arguing that they faced a cut far greater than most others in the FE sector.

But questions asked by lecturers' leaders this week cast doubt on Bilston's vision. Senior members of the lecturers' union, NATFHE, worry about the way Bilston achieved its massive growth, through a vast and complex series of franchises and partnership deals with community and other groups across Britain.

NATFHE has also attacked plans to hire some staff through an agency owned by the college, Ryton Employment and Training Agency (RETA).

Central to Mr Wymer's vision of community education is the network of community businesses and partnerships which has grown up around the college. Mr Wymer, who has dubbed his college the Bilston Consortium, acknowledges that it is more like an industrial conglomerate than a traditional FE college.

The college's current financial plan, which envisages moving to a 24-hour operation this month, argues: "The objective is to establish a network of education, training, economic regeneration centres. In the commercial world, the model would be a holding company with a growing number of subsidiaries. "

Franchising, under which colleges contract with outside bodies to run courses, has been one of the most controversial developments in education in recent times.

Mr Wymer defends his franchises with community organisations such as church groups. He said: "What franchising did was to enable us to find education in our community partnerships which already existed. We did not like franchising at all, but we were forced into it. Some of the work in a lot of our partnerships is at least as good quality as that done at thecollege."

Many colleges hit by this year's funding squeeze have drawn back from much of their new work; Bilston claimed the cuts would mean 80,000 students losing out.

But the college reacted immediately with plans to raise Pounds 10m to bankroll continued expansion. Potential sources of income outlined in the college's financial strategy include Pounds 1.2m from the European Union, Pounds 2.2m from open-learning courses and consultancy, Pounds 1.7m profits from the college's portfolio of subsidiaries and business investments, Pounds 1. 2m from RETA, and Pounds 1.2m from international projects.

Mr Wymer told The TES he was confident of hitting or even exceeding the target of Pounds 10m with ease, creating up to 300 new jobs and 25,000 student places in the process.

Bilston has certainly been playing its European card. Figures produced by the Further Education Funding Council in July showed Bilston had applied for grants worth nearly Pounds 10m from the European Social Fund during 1997. Only Pounds 176,159 had been approved.

The most heated debate, however, has been over plans for RETA to supply part-time lecturers for Bilston and other colleges. NATFHE regional official Paul Mackney has accused managers of "gross exploitation" for offering pay rates of Pounds 8.50 an hour for classroom teachers and Pounds 15.40 an hour for senior staff with management responsibilities.

Union officials say the pay rates work out at just over Pounds 7,000 a year for a lecturer and Pounds 12,700 for senior staff over the standard Bilston teaching year.

But principal Keith Wymer said the agency would not replace current part-timers. All staff currently working more than 10 hours a week would be offered part-time contracts at the college. "Only additional people will be recruited through RETA," he said.

He challenged NATFHE's interpretation of pay rates, arguing that staff employed through the agency would be paid for preparation time. Real pay rates would be Pounds 11,976 a year for a classroom lecturer and Pounds 21,705 for a lecturermanager, according to the college.

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