The man with merger on his mind

29th September 1995 at 01:00
The author of the Silver Book now has the job of tearing it up. In the first of a series of movers and shakers in FE, Frances Beckett profiles Keith Scribbins.

It will be "no bad thing" if the college employers lose their hawkish image, says the man who now has the power to blunt their talons.

Keith Scribbins, the 48-year-old who beat the confrontational Roger Ward to become chairman of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, tends to the conciliatory approach.

In the bitter dispute over employment contracts he wants to settle with NATFHE, the lecturers' union, rather than to defeat it. If he thinks this is a different strategy from that of Mr Ward, the CEF chief executive, he will not say so publicly.

He is critical of the way the CEF has dealt the dispute. But of Mr Ward he says simply: "He will grow in stature if he is more controlled by the CEF's board." It is a typical Keith Scribbins's comment; elliptical, understated, and delivered in a deep, soothing voice. It takes a moment to notice the sting in the tail.

So now that the CEF is to merge with the Association for Colleges - largely because of Keith Scribbins's election on a merger platform - will he support Mr Ward's claim to be chief executive of the merged body? Well, AFC director Ruth Gee has also "performed with distinction". The choice should be between her and Mr Ward, he says, and closes his mouth with the unobtrusive finality of a bank-vault door.

Keith Scribbins was brought up in Bristol, and has returned there to live. His parents were labourers and he went to one of Britain's first comprehensives, then took a BA at Goldsmiths College in London and an MPhil at Sussex University. He went on to do postgraduate research at the London School of Economics - subject: the secularisation of western thought.

If the Sixties student generation was radical, it was partly because for the first time it contained large numbers of young people like Keith Scribbins who were from working-class backgrounds and who knew that a generation earlier they would have stood no chance of going into higher education.

He demonstrated against the Vietnam war, joined the Communist party, and met and formed a close friendship with another student Communist from Essex University called David Triesman.

Communists believed that the right career for someone who wanted to change the world was that of trade-union official. In 1973, after four years working in FE, Keith Scribbins got a job with the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutions (ATTI). After ATTI merged with another union to become NATFHE, Mr Triesman joined him there.

Mr Scribbins looks back on those years as student activist and young trade-union official with the sadness of many Sixties radical idealists. They were almost the last generation with real equality of access to higher education, backed by student grants you could live on. They believed that things were going to get better, and the only question worth asking was how fast this could be made to happen.

He remembers how the Left thought it could afford the luxury of sectarian disputes, and how he naively thought that some sort of victory had been won when Dennis Healey lost the Labour leadership to Michael Foot. "There must have been a great collective complacency," he says now. One day in 1977, the young Scribbins and Triesman both left the Communist party, exhausted by the internecine warfare.

At NATFHE he was a rising star. David Triesman thought him "very principled, pragmatic, and very funny". Peter Dawson, the ousted general secretary of NATFHE, calls him "the best candidate I ever interviewed for a negotiating officer post. He became an outstandingly successful young negotiating official. He had a reputation for his work rate, grasp of detail and general effectiveness."

But Keith Scribbins thought Mr Dawson held his communism against him, and once left his boss's office saying he had "to take my 11 o'clock call from the Kremlin".

When the general secretary, Stan Broadbridge, died of cancer in 1978, aged 47, Mr Scribbins, at 32, found himself carrying the Left's banner in the battle for the top job in NATFHE, running against Mr Dawson. Both Mr Broadbridge and Tom Driver, who had led the union for many years, were Communists. Was Keith Scribbins their natural successor? Peter Dawson says: "People in various parts of north London might have seen Keith as that, but it never occurred to me. I don't think someone of Keith's age could have been general secretary."

But he nearly was. On the first ballot in the 100-strong council, Keith Scribbins got 37 votes. Most of his votes transferred to Mr Dawson, who won.

Six years later, in 1983, Keith Scribbins left NATFHE for the Staff College. There were people who thought the move disloyal - just as the fact that he now represents the employers is seen by some as a rejection of his old union. He is irritated by that sort of thinking. The Staff College gave him the chance to write, to think about education, and to develop training schemes.

He was there for 12 years, six of them as deputy director. In April this year, believing he would not be able to do such effective work in the new Further Education Development Agency, he took voluntary redundancy and is now busier than ever, working as an education consultant on top of his duties as chairman of governors at South Bristol College and chairman of the CEF.

Keith Scribbins supports the Labour party, West Ham football club, and two families. The oldest of his three children works for his old friend David Triesman, now leading the Association of University Teachers; the youngest is nearly two years old. His father is balding and bearded and enjoys food and drink, and "his figure reflects his love of life," as one close colleague puts it.

But what matters most just now is his natural political skill. He says he has "learned over the years how to lead by gaining people's respect". Those who work with him say he is a natural political operator. Perhaps it is another way of saying the same thing. At any rate, from where the AFC stands the results look remarkable. The CEF showed little enthusiasm for a merger until Keith Scribbins's election in July. Now the first meeting of the joint board is expected in October.

Will he solve the lecturers' dispute as quickly? At NATFHE he and David Triesman wrote the Silver Book, the FE agreement. Can he bear to tear it up? "I'm proud of the Silver Book but the process of education has changed. " He wants to find its equivalent for today. Hard-liners in the CEF are likely to accuse him of selling out while the ultra Left in NATFHE will say he has ratted on them. Neither opinion is likely to bother him much.

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