Former telecoms man heeds FE's call

8th February 2013 at 00:00
He takes over at college despite lack of education background

Until five months ago, John Thornhill had never worked in a college. But now he finds himself leading the country's largest FE institution, The Manchester College.

The former BT executive, who most recently headed the company's business IT division, was headhunted by the college as part of an effort to bring in management skills from the business world and to increase its commercial income. He becomes one of the first people without a background in education to lead a college.

Mr Thornhill spent 24 years with the telecoms giant before taking the reins in October 2012 as chief executive of The Manchester College, whose #163;187 million turnover is the largest in FE - and larger than many universities'.

But its size has not deterred Mr Thornhill from beginning a review into the structure of the organisation, which now refers to itself as TMC Group to reflect the way it combines a general FE college, a prison education service and training provider subsidiaries.

The review could even result in the TMC Group floating a company on the stock market, in line with the call made in 2010 by former Skills Funding Agency chief executive Geoff Russell for profit-making companies to run colleges or for the creation of mutual co-operatives, such as the one proposed last year at Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Colleges cannot be entirely privatised as their corporations have to protect their assets. But these assets can be kept in a separate trust, allowing the creation of a company to run anything from back-office services to the teaching itself.

At Birmingham Metropolitan College, this company was to be a cooperative where staff would share in any surpluses generated by efficiency. But a large enough college or colleges could equally be run by a profit-making company that is traded on the stock exchange.

"At the moment, the college is an incorporated charity and there are separate divisions with their own profit and loss," Mr Thornhill said. "Going forward, the key question for us is: using the freedoms and flexibilities - what does that mean? Is there a debate about being a PLC; is there a debate about joint ventures?" Mr Thornhill emphasised, however, that no particular option was currently favoured and the college could remain an incorporated charity.

The review at Manchester will take between eight and 10 weeks and will involve consultation with the unions. The college has had a turbulent relationship with the University and College Union (UCU) in recent years, with a protest over changes to pay and conditions in 2010 leading to the college leadership breaking off relations with the union.

Mr Thornhill said that talks had so far been constructive, while UCU's opposition to privatisation could stand in the way of ideas such as a stock market flotation.

College leaders with a solely private sector background are rare in FE, although more colleges are beginning to consider the move. Hadlow College in Kent, for example, turned around its finances by hiring its City of London auditor as finance director.

Mr Thornhill stressed that The Manchester College has an "academic principal", former deputy Jack Carney, who will compensate for his lack of education experience - although he has spent two years as a board member for Manchester Metropolitan University.

Other colleges, too, have split their top job into two roles for a group chief executive and a principal, such as NCG and its Newcastle College subsidiary, and Barnfield College and its federation.

But Mr Thornhill's first priority is a #163;5 million initiative over three years to improve the quality of teaching, focusing on identifying best practice and spreading it to all areas of the college's diverse work, to ensure uniform standards.

"When you look across the sector, leaders and organisations look at things in silos," he said. "All these things have to come together and there has to be a commitment to put that into the lifeblood of the system."

The investment will pay for new computer systems so that teachers can more easily compare their progress on key performance indicators, as well as improving continuing professional development, training and mentoring.

Mr Thornhill said the debate on quality had to go further than the current concern over addressing criticisms from Ofsted about colleges. "Ofsted only inspects about 30 per cent of what we do," he said.

John Thornhill CV


BA business studies, Liverpool John Moores University; MA international business, University of Central Lancashire.


1988: Joined BT.

2000-2010: Director at BT, in roles that ranged from running call centres to planning and strategy at BT Openreach.

2010-2012: Chief executive of BT Engage IT, BT Business Direct and

2011-present: Non-executive director, Manchester Metropolitan University.

October 2012-present: Chief executive of TMC Group.

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