Graeme Hyslop

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
The Langside College principal will soon retire, but before he does he shares his views on regionalisation and college funding, and his frustration at `not being allowed to get on with it'. Interview by Julia Belgutay.

What is the most interesting thing people don't know about you?

I have taught at every level possible in the college sector. I never tire of telling people that, and for many people it comes as a surprise.

What do you think has been your biggest achievement?

I think it has been to successfully reach a common understanding and a defendable, celebratory model of employer engagement at the college. We call it social partnership. Put simply, it is engaging trade unions in the decision-making process as equals. I am also proud to say that I have never held back when a hard decision had to be made in terms of what people might call efficiency or economy.

Do you think the sector is being bullied into the regionalisation agenda, as some suggest?

The word I would use is bounced. I am not reneging on criticising. We have become used to a meretricious approach to the communication of decisions about the sector. We have had an emerging tradition of announcements that all looked like good news, and relentlessly it has been bad news. Notwithstanding that, I think the way in which Michael Russell has engaged with the sector has been laudable.

Do you think the regionalisation process is going to be as smooth as Michael Russell says?

No. I think regionalisation is a fog. There has been insufficient dialogue and a perspective that is too narrow.

The education secretary has said the majority of the cuts for this year have actually been reversed and things are looking much better - do you agree?

That is meretricious, because firstly he advanced the payments of grant made. Secondly, the Skills Development Scotland contract is based on a business model that doesn't work. On those two counts alone, I'm afraid I can't agree with him.

How tough is the current funding settlement on colleges?

It's tough enough for Langside to have 67 fewer staff over a two-year period. It's tougher than anything ever in the history of the Scottish public sector, including during a war. Meanwhile, our colleagues in higher education continue to eat their roast swan and drink the Chablis by the bucket.

Do you think there is already an impact on provision from last year's cuts?

It's too early to say there has been a noticeable impact. On the contrary, I think we have papered the cracks. The regionalisation and merger process may actually allow for those cracks to be consolidated as clean walls for even longer, but ultimately, if Scotland's economy is going to turn round, colleges need to be properly funded.

You call yourself `an enlightened Scot connected to Europe'. Is there an FE model elsewhere in Europe you would champion?

They are all copying us. The unitised curriculum, the flexibility of internal assessment, the standards that are set at a national level, the idea of an inspectorate reinforcing the provision side of the standards issue, alongside the panoply of performance indicators - including listening to students - gives us the edge in terms of quality. Over and above that, we have potentially the only comprehensive learning system in Europe ever.

Do you think the restructuring of Scotland's Colleges is going to give the sector the representative body it needs?

Yes. I think we are in a position now we don't deserve to be in, because the staff at Scotland's Colleges has performed phenomenally well, particularly in the past year-and-a-half. What we will be left with is a development arm for FE and post-school education, and a body which provides information and support to government and other stakeholders.

With a regional chair in Glasgow who is in favour of one college for the city, do you think it is now inevitable?

One college in Glasgow is probably the most naive concept I ever heard of. It's not deliverable, it's too big to be allowed, and as well as that, Glasgow is a very diverse and geographically specific place.

What was your biggest frustration as principal?

Not being allowed to get on with it. The cabinet secretary has announced principals are going to be chairs of local colleges. How ironic is that? All I have ever wanted is to get on with it, because even at this late stage of mergers and partnerships at a regional level, we are swimming in a sea of work streams towards a rich tapestry of rules and regulations. That's not what distributive leadership means to me.

Are you concerned about the future of the sector?

Yes. I am not convinced that the regional model will capture the imagination of the people that work in the sector. I think it will create a once-removed acrimony. There are going to be local colleges where they say "them up there". I think the solution to that would be a social partnership model. I was warmed to hear Michael Russell say he expects staff and students to be involved integrally all the way through the process. If he honours that, I have no fears.

What are you looking forward to most when you retire?

Fridays - reading the TESS.

PERSONAL PROFILE

Born: East end of Glasgow, 1953

Education: Balmuildy Primary, Bishopbriggs; The High School of Glasgow; Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), University of Glasgow, University of Strathclyde

Career: Politics lecturer, GCU; social sciences lecturer and first community liaison officer, Reid Kerr College; FE officer, Strathclyde Regional Council; depute principal then principal, Langside College, 1999- 2012.

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