Echoes of the factory in work for a new age
Most must now agree that the incorporation of FE colleges in 1992 was the most important change in the sector for decades. Freed from local authority control, colleges suddenly became accountable to any number of bodies and agencies in ways once unthinkable. Five years on, the results are visible weekly in FE Focus: some success stories, but also job cuts, strikes and, rather less often, impressively juicy scandals.
In Management in Further Education, Harriet Harper recognises the need for management styles appropriate to a demanding new age that looks likely to last even under the new Government. Her slim volume includes most of the big names of management and motivation theory - among them, Mayo, Maslow, Peters and Handy - all of whose ideas Harper tests for relevance to current conditions.
Concise and clearly-written, the book's four chapters - on managing people, operations, resources and information - offer much that will be useful to those charged with running what has fast become FE PLC. Especially sound is a chapter on funding regulations that offers a sure route through that particular labyrinth, while even long-term technophobes will be impressed by Harper's enthusiasm for up-to-date information systems.
Many lecturers, though, will be less keen, seeing information-gathering and recording as activities that seem to have become more ends in themselves than aids either to teaching or recruitment. To be fair, Harper several times acknowledges this and related complaints - as when she endorses Mike Cushman's 1996 TES observation that "the contribution that individual acts of learning can make to the social fabric in which people live disappears into the crevices of tariff units" - but she seldom suggests a convincing managerial response to a culture change that has visibly damaged staff morale. Other areas show more serious weaknesses. While Harper accepts that the strains of working in FE have multiplied in recent years, she merely recommends as a solution that most complacent of managerial nostrums: "effective time management can help reduce stress".
She notes that "those most experienced and those likely to be most concerned about quality" are the senior and middle managers in FE colleges. Classroom toilers will love that one. These and like comments ("distraught parents" are described as "time-wasters" for managers) betray Harper's preference for meeting change in ways more convenient for some than others.
Nowhere does she consider the possibility that managers might teach more so as to lessen the widening gap between themselves and their subordinates, nor is there any mention of how trades unions might help to ensure high standards of teaching and learning. Despite some prudent advice, Harper's vision of managerial good practice is compromised by an implicit "top-downism" that is even more inappropriate to the present pressure-cooker atmosphere than it was before incorporation. Colleges are not factories, and Harper might have been more severe on those who seek to make them so.