Ian McKay

24th August 2012 at 01:00
The newly appointed chairman of the Edinburgh college region talks about his priorities and the challenges he faces, and shares his views on the Scottish government's regionalisation agenda. Interview by Julia Belgutay. Photography James Glossop

Where you surprised when you were chosen as Edinburgh regional chair?

It wasn't something I sought. But in what they are looking for, I can see why someone with my background would fit the bill.

What qualifications do you bring to the post?

Having both senior experience in the public and private sector and been a senior trade union leader and a business leader. I don't think there are too many of us around who have experience on both sides of the fence, and both sides of the bargaining table. Throw in that I am also qualified in education.

What do you say to critics who say you have not been heavily enough involved in the FE sector in recent years?

I would say to them, "You haven't read my CV." Anyone who has been in business in Scotland in the last period of time has actually had quite a lot to do with FE and with skills development. We had an award-winning apprenticeship scheme within the Royal Mail, and I was also sitting on the CBI council, where you are automatically engaged in various government and education initiatives.

What will be your priority for your year as chairman?

We should be aiming to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. I was an FE lecturer, I am very conscious of FE and its perception within the educational firmament, and I was a Stevenson lecturer, so I know Edinburgh and I know the rivalries and strengths of the different colleges that were there.

The merger seems to be going well - what are the challenges?

The major challenge is always the same. People always find change hard to deal with. What is absolutely imperative is ensuring that you are transparent, your communications are good and people know what's happening and when it's happening, and where their place is in it.

How are you going to make sure the individual strengths of the three colleges aren't lost in the process?

That will be a very good question for our incoming principal, because I will be looking to the executive team to do just that. If it is to be something more than just bolting the three bits together, then someone has to sit down and analyse what the strengths are and therefore what the areas are for improving. It falls to me to ensure the board is supportive of that.

Do you agree with the government's regionalisation agenda?

I think there is always the detail one should be sitting down and discussing. My personal view is that with incorporation, we very much lost the ability to be strategic. I agree that we needed to move out from the public sector, but it stood to reason that we then lost a lot of the strategic overview that in my mind was critical. This is a step in the right direction.

As a former lecturer and a former EIS assistant secretary, can you understand that a lot of the lecturers are quite worried where the process is going?

There is nobody around who doesn't realise the pressure the public sector is under. We are all in the business of seeking to continue high levels of service with less resource to do it. What is important is that people know where they stand. Before I got there, Edinburgh had agreed a "no compulsory redundancy" policy. An agreement like that is good for everybody.

Do you back the EIS demand for collective pay and conditions bargaining at a national level?

I think it would be very foolish, having only had about a week to get into this, for me to say, "Here is the best or the worst way for us to bargain in further education". If one is changing the structure, then one has to certainly look at the bargaining arrangements which are there.

When you moved from the EIS to the Royal Mail, was that a case of poacher turned gamekeeper?

Clearly that would have been the perception, and I can understand why. What I have learned since then is that whether at the EIS, as a senior lecturer trying to change the sector, or as a director of Royal Mail Group, what I have done is the same thing. It's about using your contacts and your experience, and generally trying to work with the good guys against the bad guys. In a way, whether you are a poacher or a gamekeeper, you still have a pretty good regard for wildlife and the environment.

Is it your intention to have a principal for Edinburgh College by the vesting day?

It very much is. I have every confidence in the process that has taken place within the three colleges so far. I was grateful to them for allowing me to be fully involved in the final process, because I think that will be important for the future, and my hope would be that we are able to identify who the new principal is by mid-September barring any difficulties.

Looking forward to the coming year, what are you most excited about?

Changing further education. Being part of that process and establishing a college which can play a leading role in changing where FE sits in the community and in its relationship with other education providers. I look on this as being an enormous opportunity.


Born: West Lothian, 1955

Education: Longridge Primary; Whitburn Academy; University of Stirling

Career: Lecturer and senior lecturer at Stevenson College; assistant general secretary of the EIS; director of Scottish Affairs at the Royal Mail Group; chairman of the Institute of Directors in Scotland.

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