Entrusted to professor's safe hands

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Barely had his name hit the headhunters' shortlist than David Melville was saddled with the chosen one's dullest accolade - "a safe pair of hands".

Once confirmed as the next chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, Professor Melville inspired an equally double-edged comment. He was, some said with relief and others with apprehension, "no Bill Stubbs".

In the first respect at least, the former physics professor who ushered Middlesex Polytechnic into the university world, neatly fits the headhunters' brief for the new FEFC head.

As vice-chancellor of a new university, he is used to managing change - essential if he is to steer further education through rough waters as funding tightens.

Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, calls him the ultimate "hands-off manager". "He is an excellent choice for FE. We need someone who will not interfere with the day-to-day running of colleges. "

Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, said: "He is independent-minded, combines charm with determination and is a visionary able to put his ideas into practice."

Some, who resented Sir William Stubbs' alleged interference in college affairs and "terror by audit", hope for a more hands-off, collaborative approach. But few deny Sir William's machiavellian thinking and charisma will be hard to match.

Even those keen for a change from the Stubbs style admit the outgoing chief executive was a skilful manipulator of the Whitehall machine, well-respected in the corridors of power. Professor Melville has still to prove his strengths to a wider audience.

One leading figure in the sector, a critic of Sir William's approach, admitted: "When Bill had a point of view he fought for it and fought for it hard. I just have a suspicion that unlike Bill, who is very much his own man, David may be seen by Whitehall as not likely to give them so much trouble. " The safe pair of hands, he suggests, are attached to a man unlikely to rock the boat.

Those principals who worked closely with Professor Melville in a north London consortium of Middlesex University and its seven neighbouring FE colleges, tell a different story. The vice-chancellor who oversaw his university's shift from financial troubles to stability is, they insist, an adept political mover.

Michael Blagden, principal of Southgate College - an associate college of the university - said: "He is used to moving at those levels. He has undoubted diplomatic skills which he will need to protect the sector."

Hendon College principal Jennifer Hoyland said: "He will be very different from Bill Stubbs but just as firm. I think he can be extremely charming but has a very clear sense of where he is going."

The professor's bridge-building work between his university and colleges is understood to have played a large part in his selection. It is where principals gleaned most of the clues on how he will lead the sector.

Arriving at Middlesex from Lancashire Polytechnic in 1991, Professor Melville helped inject new life into the consortium, which bids for European and training and enterprise council funds for joint projects involving all eight institutions.

"If the job was going to go to someone from the higher education sector then it is good that it is someone that has had such a positive attitude towards making links between universities and the FE colleges in his patch," says Mr Blagden, hinting at the disappointment felt by many in colleges that a candidate from within FE was not chosen.

Professor Melville's eagerness to work with colleges promises a "participative, collaborative approach", the principal believes. "He will prove to be someone with whom the sector can work."

The professor's vision of a collaborative network has extended to local schools as well as colleges. Secondary headteachers have been involved with the university in developing progression routes for pupils aged 14 and up.

The distant sound of bridges under construction will not please all college leaders. Many are alarmed at renewed speculation, fuelled by the new appointment, that the HE and FE funding councils could merge. Marilyn Frampton, vice principal of Richmond-upon-Thames College, is not alone in fearing colleges might become "ground down".

Time will tell how far Professor Melville will go to safeguard FE as a sector. His challenges will also include internal battles - as colleges endure their tightest cash squeeze to date he must tread a difficult path in appeasing both sides of the debate on convergence, the system used to bring funding into line nationwide. "He is going to find it very difficult to satisfy all camps, " warns Jennifer Hoyland.

Those who know him are optimistic of his chances of good relations with even the most belligerent colleges. A good communicator, without enemies, he's called an "all round nice guy".

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