Life after Roger Ward

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
In the wake of the resignation of the Association of Colleges' chief executive, two Commentary contributors offer their observations on the affair

In his poem Ozymandias, Shelley describes how a traveller from an antique land finds the shattered remains of a fallen idol. In the centre of the scene of devastation is the plinth on which the self-important one had placed himself, round which ran the text: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair."

Arrogantly, he had wished all would-be rivals to be so over-awed by his achievements that they would despair of being able to match them. However, the ironical second meaning of the text - that an observer, looking at the desolation which was the result of Ozymandias's efforts, might be reduced to despair - is obvious.

Shelley does not go into the reasons for his downfall, and any enquiries were, apparently inconclusive. So we shall never know whether he made unwise alliances, confused himself with his own cleverness, or simply had feet of clay.

None of which has anything whatever to do with the resignation of Roger Ward from his post as chief executive of the Association of Colleges. The press release makes quite clear that the resignation and its acceptance by the AOC were to enable both parties to look to the future. Fine. The first, stated aim of the board is to go out and find a new chief executive.

Members of the AOC whose subscriptions fund its activities might have a view about what manner of person should take up such a conspicuous post. Since fewer than 18 months have gone by since Roger Ward was appointed, the board will presumably be seeking many of the qualities they discerned in him at the time.

The college sector is in a parlous state, both financially with a growing number of colleges living on borrowed time and money, and in political circles, where we look like less than the sum of our parts. We cannot, apparently resist the temptation to fall out among ourselves. Whether the issue is convergence of funding levels; London allowances; the composition of governing bodies; or the best way to secure the services of part-time lecturers, we seem to find it necessary to squabble like ferrets in a sack.

Put all this together with the changing of teaching and learning; a shift in powers between central and regional government; the expectations of a whole new set of client groups; to say nothing of a freshly-elected leader of the main lecturers' union, and the need for clear, articulate, informed, judicious and respected leadership is evident. As, of course, it was 18 months ago.

One member of the current board is on record as saying that the post of chief executive represents the best education job in Europe, and if the salary offered next time is similar to that enjoyed by Roger Ward, which I am sure most people would find sufficient, there should be no shortage of applicants. But it's not an easy post to fill, and board members will have to exercise their judgment once again.

Such is the factionalism in the college sector that it would be practically - perhaps absolutely - impossible to find any current principal who is not associated with a group which commands the loyalty and support of some, but the suspicion and opposition of others. It is no doubt a consequence of the small size of the sector that we all know too much about each other.

Even if the cliquishness could be overcome, how many senior figures in colleges would be confident of their ability to cut the right kind of figure in all the places where the chief executive would need to impress?

Can you talk the sober language of Treasury mandarins and recover further education's lost millions? Can you outbox John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme before you've digested your breakfast?

Can you give an authoritative overview of the range and structure of national vocational qualifications in 20 minutes to a group overseas experts, through an interpreter? Can you keep your cool when being questioned by a parliamentary Select Committee? There's not much of that sort of experience on the curriculum vitae these days. But when you think of who speaks for the universities or the schools in these sorts of context, you note that they seem to have got it about right. Why not colleges, too?

Last time round, the judgment of the AOC board in choosing the chief executive was that they should play safe and appoint a person with whom they were familiar. They knew exactly what they were getting. Roger Ward was the devil they knew, in no sense a pig in a poke. Now both parties have agreed to look to the future and the board to a "fresh start", as the vice-chair puts it in his letter to the membership.

Now that is an interesting phrase, because it was under the banner of a "fresh start" that a loose grouping of colleges put forward an alternative slate of candidates for election to the board 18 months or so ago. The slate for change got nowhere, and by and large it was the group of those who had worked most closely with Roger Ward on the board of the Colleges Employers Forum who were successful, and whose first act was to appoint him to the post of chief executive.

It would be instructive to know how many of the board, given the experience of the past 18 months and the last three in particular, now think that the idea of a fresh start could extend beyond the appointment of a new chief executive to the membership of the board itself.

Some may already feel that the conflict of loyalties makes continued membership impossible, while others may be sufficiently aware of the disgruntlement in colleges to want at the very least to seek a fresh personal mandate by submitting themselves for re-election at the earliest moment. It is a matter of judgment.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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