Money makes this whore's world go round;FE Focus;Commentary;Opinion

23rd July 1999 at 01:00
Now settle down everybody. I'm going to tell you a story. You might like to think of it as a fairy story. Though as it is a tale for our times, be warned it will involve sex, money and the heady drug of personal ambition.

It starts with a mummy, a daddy and their only child. These are errant parents, you might think, because they have just told their daughter that to pay the rent she must sell her body.

Not surprisingly, the daughter is not very keen on the idea. Nor at first is she very good at the actuality. Up until now her loving parents have always said that she should think of sex as being indivisible from love, affection, caring.

After a while, though, she begins to get the hang of it. Men like certain things, she discovers, so she goes out of her way to learn how to do them. The years pass and eventually she forgets what it was like not to be a hooker. And while love may now be no more than a faint echo from an old song, at least the rent is not a problem any more.

Imagine her surprise, then, on returning home one night with her usual fistful of grubby notes to discover that her parents' tone has changed entirely. "You naughty girl," they chant, as they pocket the cash, "you've turned into a real little whore."

Now prepare yourself for a second story. Not entirely unconnected, you might think, with the first: Once upon a time, back in the bad old days before college principals lived in marbled halls and units of activity still answered to that quaint old label "student", the child-like practitioners of FE believed in their own version of love: they called it education. It was, they thought, what their job was about; their purpose in life; their (dare I mention the word) mission.

But then along came their mummy and daddy (FE still had two parents back in those wasteful days). Mummy's real name was the Association for Colleges, but as that didn't sound very cuddly everyone called her by her nickname - AFC. Daddy too liked to use his initials: CEF, a much snappier handle than Colleges Employers Forum.

Even though they used to have lots of rows, on one thing Mummy and Daddy agreed. From now on colleges (and those who worked in them) must forget all about that love crap. Love was for losers. The name of the game now was money.

Of course, this wasn't really their idea. This particular mummy and daddy had few thoughts of their own.

Rather it was an idea they had learned from another member of the family, Big Brother, otherwise known as the FEFC. And even Big Brother himself hadn't thought it up all on his own. Mostly he was parroting what he had heard from his big brother, known widely throughout the neighbourhood as the "Conservative government".

But whoever had thought of it first, the message was unrelenting. Money, money, money. Nothing else mattered any more.

Like in the story of the first daughter, this new worship of Mammon didn't come easy for most FE folk - particularly as under the new regime so little of it seemed to come their way. Many felt so confused by what was happening that they left home and tried to start again in a new country, Redundancyland.

Gradually, though, those few who remained began to get used to it. They stopped thinking about what was best for the students and started concentrating on what would bring in the most dosh. In meetings they learned to curb talk about educational values or ethical considerations: these days such talk would only make you a figure of fun. Instead, they began to speak in loud voices about the importance of generating a profit or maximising the unit harvest.

Sometimes they were sent to look longingly over the fence at other families who were thought to have really cracked the money game through something called "franchising". These people had left the old world of education far, far behind, but were now really coining it in.

Then something changed. It was hard to put a finger on it, though it seemed to be connected with the sudden elevation of a distant cousin named Tony. But whatever it was, it certainly started Mummy singing to a different tune. She had now started using a different alias - "AOC" - and had long since ditched Daddy as being a wasteful irrelevance.

One day, Mummy decided to check up on her college "daughters" by surveying their attitudes to their new babies - the 14 to 16-year-olds some of them had started admitting. You could tell the sort of answer she was looking for from the name she gave to the survey: widening participation.

But - horror of horrors - the answers that started trickling in were all wrong. Two out of three of the colleges Mummy asked said they were mainly interested in the cash - the continuing business the little ones would bring in.

This caused Mummy many sleepless nights. Just like the girl in the first story, her beautiful daughters had turned into whores. And try as she might, she just couldn't work out where they had got such mercenary attitudes from in the first place.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college

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