Peter Shuker sees himself as an "observer of change". Estelle Maxwell reports.
Information technology guru Peter Shuker is a forward planner par excellence. As principal of Darlington College of Technology and chair of NAITFE - the National Association for Information Technology in Further Education - he keeps one eye fixed on developments which will change the shape of the increasingly competitive section in coming years.
"I would like to think I was a visionary. I see myself as an observer of change. I used to be 'hands-on'Ibut not any more. All one can do is look at what the state of the art technology is now and realise it will probably be affordable in two years time," he says.
"When one looks at what has happened with the Internet just recently it should make a lot of people involved in college management think carefully about how they spend their money - and their long-term plans."
Almost 30 years have passed since he first got to grips with mainframe computers at evening classes while still a mathematics lecturer at Huddersfield Polytechnic - and his thirst for knowledge has remained unquenchable. "I have been accused of being a 'techie' but I am not. I use it," he claims. "I am interested in what technology can do for me, my staff, and the students. That is what it is all about."
It is now six years since the former structural engineer and soldier helped found NAITFE. And his interest in IT is deadly serious. "One of NAITFE's most important tasks is to help colleges address their strategies for communications technology and systems, post-incorporation. They will have to change if they are going to stay in business but the majority are not yet addressing the major impact which technology is going to make."
Two-and-a-half years ago he spearheaded NAITFE's call to the Further Education Funding Council to help colleges meet the demands for increased management information by providing more sophisticated equipment. "We had no idea then of what the funding methodology would be or what data collection strategies were necessary.
"At that time Roger McLure (the FEFC finance director) felt it was inappropriate and a fairly simple counting package was all colleges would need to cope. I think time has proved us right," he says.
A tireless worker - "I tend to relax with my family and enjoy sport, especially cricket" - he is also a member of two FEFC working groups, a council member of the National Council for Educational Technology, the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit, and the BTEC advisory board.
At the same time, during the nine years since he became principal of Darlington he has overseen a significant investment programme in its IT. "When I came here we had a zero base so we were able to design systems which were suitable for the future. By sheer good luck we were very close and only needed to make minor adjustments to ensure we had a comprehensive system for both the academic and administrative departments."
The college now has about 13,000 full and part-time students and has hit its predicted growth targets, offering a range of courses to meet the changing social and economic needs of the region dependent for so many years on traditional industries, engineering, and steel manufacture.
"At one stage there were 2,000 students alone on day release from local companies - mainly male. Now they have been replaced by inward-investing Japanese companies and service companies offering lower skilled jobs than the old manufacturing firms," he explains.
"They are mainly clerical jobs, and more and more work is being given to women rather than men which is creating a revolution in the employment market. The effect on the college has been marked; we now have more female students than male about 60:40."
Its courses have also altered to meet demand and have expanded alongside its established schools to include journalism, catering, art and design, engineering and a wide range of language courses????.
Introducing the controversial Colleges' Employers' Forum-style contract has been a relatively smooth process, he claims, with almost 60 per cent of the staff signing 12 months ago, and 95 per cent of support staff accepting a flexible contract in January.
"A lot of the credit must go to my director of personnel who worked closely with the unions to make them see the changes are inevitable and try to come closer together. I have kept at a distance and kept the corporation away from it," he says.
"At the end of the day you cannot compensate for losing seven weeks holiday; it is quite a wrench. You are really asking the staff to believe that the management will not exploit them.
"One of the things I have learned to do much more since incorporation is to delegate. This is one of those areas which I have delegated."
He describes his management style as fairly relaxed: "I have changed my senior management team twice since incorporation. Though I have an open-door policy, everyone has their own line manager now so there is an obvious route for everyone to follow. It is not hands-on management style but this is inevitable to some extent - it comes down to being able to delegate and letting people get on with things.
"Some of my colleagues may have a different perception of me. They may feel I am an autocrat, but I prefer to reach a position by consensus. If we cannot, then I'll make a decision. It's probably my army training."
Edited by Ian Nash