Good morning, goodbye and good riddance

30th May 1997 at 01:00
In March this year, on the last day of the Easter term, two senior managers showed up for work as usual at a large college on the northern fringes of London.

One of them was feeling particularly chirpy. He was expecting a pat on the back from his chief executive for having just won the college Pounds 500, 000 in external funding. He got his wish to see his boss that day but, unfortunately, the interview did not work out as he had hoped. Instead of the expected plaudit, he got the sack. Both managers did. The chief executive - who had personally promoted them to their current vice-principal-equivalent posts - told them there was no longer a role for them in the college.

In short, they were surplus to requirements. They found out just how surplus in the next few minutes. Hardly had the news sunk in when they were told to clear their desks. In doing so, it was made clear to them that they could not talk to anyone else in the building.

Use of the phone was also forbidden: not even a quick "Hello dear, I've got the sack" to their wives. To ensure that they obeyed these ordinances, they were escorted wherever they went by other managers. Their escorts - men who until a few moments before had been their close colleagues - then accompanied them to their cars and saw them off the premises.

As they left, maintenance staff moved in to change the locks on their offices. Thus they were effectively declared non-persons. Even their phone calls were not to be received. Any contact, they were told, must be made through their lawyers.

Not surprisingly, the two men were devastated. Between them, they had more than 50 years' service at the college. Until the moment of their dismissals, both had thought themselves secure in their posts - or at least as secure as anyone can be in FE today. The significance of the sackings - and in particular the ruthless manner in which they had been accomplished - was not lost on other college staff.

They felt they were being told to watch out: if it can happen to them, it can happen to you. Nevertheless, a few weeks later a group of them demonstrated outside the college buildings in support of their sacked colleagues. The demo was small, partly no doubt because of the rumours circulating that "names would be noted". So what are we to make of all this? An isolated incident? A rogue manager working out his mid-life crisis on wretched subordinates?

Unfortunately, the case is not unique. More and more, we are hearing of colleges with high-minded mottoes and Investors in People logos acting like Mafia bosses as they cull their "surplus" staff.

The current issue of Private Eye gives us another case in point: sacked lecturers at Wakefield College allowed only minutes to collect their belongings before being ejected by security staff. And let us not forget the case of Pat Walsh, the defeated candidate for vice-president in the recent NATFHE union elections.

He too went to his workplace - Accrington College in Lancashire - on the last day of a term only to discover that he featured on a redundancy list of one! He, too, was shown the door at a moment's notice. And the fact that he was a union secretary in the middle of a dispute with management at the time was seen only as "coincidental" by the principal who sacked him.

Leaving aside for a moment the manner of their going, the case of the sacked managers might lead us to think that the days of "let's appoint another manager" as a way of solving any problem in FE were finally over. With budgets shrinking fast, there is little room anymore for a vast cadre of under-employed bosses at Pounds 40,000 a throw.

But does that mean the end of the road for the managerial culture that has so pervaded the FE body politic since incorporation four years ago? Sadly, no. There may be fewer of them around to implement it now, but the style of top-down management so prevalent in our colleges these days shows few signs of going away.

In some ways, it is getting worse. It is not only high-profile macho sackings. At every level now, discussion is being replaced by direction; consultation by command; empowerment by edict. Only a few years ago, colleges were still seen as liberal establishments, with staff at all levels making useful contributions to their smooth and efficient running.

College committees (some of them at least) meant something. And the Academic Board was more than just a rubber-stamping process for management decisions already taken.

By contrast, the new climate is decidedly illiberal. Objections to current orthodoxies are seen as "unhelpful". Course teams meet to be told what has been decided as "policy" by those above them. In some colleges, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say a climate of fear prevails. People watch their backs, think who may be listening before speaking out. Speech is about as free as it was during the dark despotic days of the great dictators.

Fortunately for them, today's "redundant" college staff aren't driven off in the night to distant work camps. Quite the reverse. In the case of the sacked London managers, it's quite likely they'll never work again.

Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer.

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