Forget the doom, give us the figures

16th July 2010 at 01:00
There is a familiar sub-plot in disaster movies that sees the hero warn of impending doom only to be dismissed as a scare-mongering lunatic by the powers that be.

It creates a bit of dynamic tension - followed by release when the firefloodsinkingsharksasteroidaliensmutant piranha inevitably wreaks havoc, giving the audience a big "told you so, you @#amp;%" moment of vicarious satisfaction.

Outside the movies, however, doom-mongering can be far less rewarding. Look at swine flu, where a vast amount of money was spent on a vaccine and notices telling grown-ups how to wash their hands for a pandemic that failed to materialise.

The University and College Union has taken a bit of a risk, then, in attempting to put a number on college job losses (page 1).

The scale is alarming: 34,000 full-time equivalents is about one in seven of the entire college workforce. And, at the risk of turning alarm into panic, remember these are FTE figures, which obscure part-timers. So, even assuming a modest multiplier of 1.5, the actual number of people losing their jobs, based on UCU's figure, could be more like 50,000, or nearly one in four college staff.

The Association of Colleges (AoC) dismisses the figures, calling them "overly bleak". This is understandable because even if they did know how many jobs are likely to go, the AoC is unlikely to want to trade numbers with the UCU. This is a pity because it creates a climate of fear, mixed with a suspicion that employers do know how many heads are on the block but aren't willing to say because it's a lot.

When asked directly about the scale of the job losses being considered across colleges, the AoC says it has not got a figure and that spending cuts do not automatically mean redundancies.

Accepting this at face value is, arguably, more alarming still. For how can college employers, who are shedding hundreds of jobs across the country, not have some idea of how many redundancies they must make to balance the books? Are we to imagine finance directors are waiting for the point where the workforce "feels about right"?

Perhaps as Ian Pryce, principal of Bedford College, and Chris Hearn, of Barclays Corporate, agree on pages 4 and 5, the level of financial knowledge in the sector is not as uniformally good as it could be. If it isn't, then now is certainly the time to bring it up to speed.

Alan Thomson, Editor, FE Focus


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