Let parity be the watchword
AS David Gibson prepares to bow out as chief executive of the Association of Colleges, he has one over-riding message for whoever succeeds him.
"The single biggest challenge facing the sector is the ability to pay staff fairly - at the appropriate level to ensure excellence in teaching and tackle the very serious shortages."
In his first detailed interview since deciding to retire this August, he told FE Focus: "Of course there are pressing issues: to cut bureaucracy, reduce regulations and remove funding constraints. But at the end of the day it is the staff that count."
There could be no complacency over the record pound;1.2 billion over three years announced by Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, last autumn; nor with the abolition of the annual 1 per cent cut (euphemistically called an "efficiency measure") that had blighted the sector for nine years.
Worse off in real terms than colleges were in 1996, sustained recovery and fair rewards for all require further aggressive bargaining with Mr Clarke and the Treasury during the run-up to the next comprehensive spending review, he reckons.
He is retiring at 64, he says, not because he has lost the will to battle but because he is not eager to work until at least 67 - "which is what it would take to get everything into place."
In the past decade, his career has mirrored the rise of the sector's significance. Principal of City College Manchester and vice-president of the Association of Principals of Colleges on incorporation Vesting Day in 1993, he rose to become head of the employers' organisation and took the AoC through its most successful phase.
While approving of much that he has witnessed, Mr Gibson laments the lack of financial support for the sector, the constant equivocation of governments over funding and recruitment policies as well as the failure, until now, to see the need for proper leadership training.
"It is astonishing but no one saw it as appropriate to give principals proper training for their new roles," he said.
Since 1993, 20,000 lecturers have quit the sector (apart from those who retired) and staff shortages in key areas reached record levels. For ministers to reach their latest targets, colleges must recruit at least 17,000 new staff and managers every year to 2010.
In the terms of New Labour-speak, the sector had "modernised" more than any other and excelled in meeting targets - set at the policy whims of one minister after another - from 16 to 19 recruitment to franchising courses to industry.
"Okay, there are famous examples where it did not work - Halton and Bilston - but the overwhelming picture was one of success," he said.
And the rewards from successive governments? Real-terms spending cuts, padlocks on every new pot of cash and "no flexibility to do anything significant to improve pay".
Under the stewardship of his predecessor Roger Ward, the sector cannot deny that it was complicit in this. Casualisation, tougher contracts and subsequent erosion of pay was the order of the day. But New Labour cannot hide behind such excuses of the bad old Tory days, as they have been in power for almost seven of the 10 years since incorporation.
Talk of pound;55,000 a year for a plumber may be tabloid hype, but colleges are finding it harder to attract people from industry, and the gap with schoolteachers has grown to an average pound;3,000, and almost pound;6,000 at the top of the scale. That is why again this year, as DfES figures show, almost 1,000 of FE's best-qualified lecturers have quit to teach in schools. Strike threats may have receded, but pay talks are more like a ship becalmed at sea than one in safe dock.
"The extra pound;1.2bn is welcome but is not there yet," he said. But the auspices are good.
During his tenure, employers and unions have moved away from an atmosphere of permanent hostility, but there is still a way to go. Unions' desire to close the gap with schools by 2005 is already lost and even three years is doubtful.
"I can say that a significant impact will have been made within three years," he said. "But there are other costs to meet - teacher pensions, local authority pensions, National Insurance increases - that will take a lot of the extra money." So fair pay will remain a challenge for his successor.
The quality of leadership has undoubtedly improved, as witness the recent study by Hay Group consultants who said the best colleges matched the performance of top multinational companies. But the stress has taken its toll. In 1993, there were 200-250 applicants for every principal's job. Now the figure is as low as 15.
"Poor pay, bureaucracy and work overload have put people off before ever getting to a position to apply," he said.
Here again, he has seen significant breakthroughs during his four years at the helm of the AoC. The FE FocusAoC "Cut Bureaucracy" campaign was a success, the Leadership College has been announced, more progress than ever has been made on co-operation with schools and employers for 14 to 19-year-olds and colleges have a strengthened higher education role and new foundation degrees.
"Ministers and the Learning and Skills Council have pledged better accountability, openness and transparency," he said.
"Links with employers are better than we are led to believe in the media.
Our research found that 1,000 small-to-medium enterprises were involved in many colleges, and an average of 200 with every college. But that is not to be complacent - the CBI acknowledges the need for better links."
Getting to grips with employer needs is the next big challenge, which again requires clearer ministerial thinking: "There has never been clarity from government over who should pay for what," he said.
It all adds up to a considerable challenge for Mr Gibson's successor in getting the sector's message across to ministers and giving FE clout at the next general election.