Neil Munro meets Robert Kay, chairman of Borders College and of the Association of Scottish Colleges, whose annual conference ends today
It is one of life's little ironies that the man who presided over the controversial sackings at Borders College has himself been made redundant. Robert Kay was factor of David Liddell-Granger's Ayton Castle estate in Berwickshire for 18 years until the owner embarked last year on what Mr Kay describes as "a change of direction", which meant that, aged 58, his services were no longer required.
"It's the second time in my career that I've faced redundancy, so I certainly know what it's like," the chairman of Borders College board reflects ruefully.
Hertfordshire-born Mr Kay now appears to be relishing his twilight career in further education. But it was not always thus. "We've had to make changes which have been very difficult, and everybody regrets that there have been casualties, none more so than I," he says. The seven redundancies at Borders College resulted in four industrial tribunal cases, three of which were settled out of court.
But it was the management style of Campbell Pearson, the previous principal, which landed Mr Kay in the hottest water and earned him guilt by association. Some members of his staff felt he should have done more to stamp his authority on the college when Mr Pearson was at loggerheads with the unions. As things transpired, Mr Kay remained and Mr Pearson departed.
Mr Kay is too gentlemanly to be drawn into public comment on those unhappy times and he is concentrating his attention now on the times that are a-changing. The Scottish Office investigation into union claims of maladministration and "macho-management", which was widely seen as a whitewash, did not prove any of the serious allegations.
But Mr Kay observes: "The underlying feelings which engendered that outburst had to be dealt with - and they have been. I'm certain you will now find a totally different climate. We have gained the staff's confidence and made changes for the future. We consult staff over the college development plan, for example, which gives them a sense of ownership, and we've set up systems for getting information to staff who are guaranteed answers to any questions within 48 hours."
The college says it has shown its commitment to the staff by taking 21 temporary lecturers on to the permanent books, against the national trend.
So confident is Mr Kay that he furnished me with a list of the union leaders and invited me to seek their confirmation of his claim that "the 'climate of fear' charge does not exist today".
George Higgs, the convener of the lecturing staff side, duly obliged, paying tribute to a more relaxed atmosphere and better communications. The chairman is seen in the college and has been known to ask staff relevant questions, he says. "The management is at least listening, whereas you knew in the past that they were not," Mr Higgs says. "And we now look for reassurance that these improvements are not temporary."
Assurances, however, are not long term in the marketplace, which is where FE will continue to be located. Mr Kay, imbibing the college management mantra, says the needs of students and "customers" will drive the service. Although Higher Still will bring schools and colleges closer together, half of Borders College students are adult returners and half of those are women, "many of whom sacrifice a great deal to come into FE", Mr Kay says.
Student numbers have risen by 60 per cent in five years. The college has 50 full-time courses, compared with 25 five years ago of which only 10 are still running. "These show a massive increase in activity but also massive changes, " Mr Kay observes in another of his favourite re-emphases.
But, mindful of his new relationships, he commends the staff for working hard to meet these student needs. "This means, increasingly, meeting training needs on employers' premises where they want it. If that involves Friday, Saturday and Sunday working, so be it.
"It would be wrong to say there have not been stresses and strains since incorporation. But one area where there have not been stresses and strains is in staff agreement to run courses away from college premises. That's important for us and it's their future as well. We have to grow our business to keep ahead."
Mr Kay suspects only half-jokingly that he was an acceptable leader of the multi-sited Borders College because, as a Hertford-shire man, he is a neutral figure not connected with any of the region's self-conscious towns. His rise to the top of the Association of Scottish Colleges may have been equally providential, since Ian Muir, the chairman of the Jewel and Esk Valley College board and a potential rival to succeed the outgoing Ray Baker, was stuck in a traffic jam and not able to be present to be nominated on the fateful day.
But there was strong support for Mr Kay's candidacy nonetheless. Those who have observed him at work say he has revealed "an unexpected forthrightness", which the previous education minister was privileged to receive a taste of at their last meeting when they clashed over FE funding. "He has high standards of politeness, which should not be taken to suggest a lack of firmness," one insider commented.
Mr Kay will also be expected to deploy his consensus-building skills, which appear to have been such a success at Borders College, on the national stage. Preserving unity among 43 competing institutions is never going to be easy, particularly as there are other pressures on the horizon: the Scottish Office is reviewing FE funding; there are bound to be college mergers even if the Government does not relax the current rigid criteria; the cap on higher education work in the colleges will become an increasingly tight fit; and next month's Dearing Report on HE will have implications for FE.
Mr Kay's priority in the face of all this is to raise the profile of the FE sector. "Everyone thinks they know about school because everyone's been, and those in power have usually been to university. But the important gap in the middle which makes business and industry tick is FE, and it is barely understood by the general public, far less by those in power."
While Mr Kay is critical of "the lack of transparency" in the way the FE cake is distributed, not to mention the approaching crisis in both core and capital funding, his colours are attached firmly to the fence as far as a possible FE funding council is concerned. "If push comes to shove, then a properly constituted and balanced tertiary funding council covering FE and HE would probably be the best way forward," he states.
One change he is more determined to avoid is any reversion to collective national bargaining. This is best done locally, he feels, because costs are otherwise imposed on each college which could be disproportionate to its circumstances. "I'm not saying we want to drive down salaries and conditions but we do want to be able to reward hard work and loyal service," Mr Kay says.
His view is that "staff and management sitting round the table in their own college is a unifying experience which makes each side aware of the other's problems". This is not quite how it is seen in the colleges which are now going through the strife with which Borders is all too familiar.
Despite the travails past and present, Mr Kay remains an enthusiast for FE, which the sector assuredly needs. "It is an end in itself for some, a ladder and a stepping stone for others," he says. For him, it has certainly been a worthwhile and ideal solution to his own redundancy problem.