David Melville tells Ian Nash how he plans to tackle the top job in further education. A merger of the funding councils for further and higher education is out of the question, says Professor David Melville, vice chancellor of Middlesex University and the man set to take the FE helm.
"There is no sense in which that is on the agenda and no sense in which it was even being discussed as part of my appointment process," he said in his first press interview since being appointed to succeed Sir William Stubbs as chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.
His eagerness to scotch such rumours - sparked by his appointment - will dismay a sizeable minority who see FE as part of a wider HE structure. But he insisted: "It is too crude a concept. What is on the agenda is much closer working between the two sectors."
Colleges need a broader vision, he says. "Far more important is the need for better links with the training and enterprise councils. With a few notable exceptions they see themselves in competition with FE. Higher education is just part of the picture. FE must relate to all post-16 providers including schools."
To critics who say he lacks experience of FE needed for the top post, he lists solid achievements. He was vice-rector of Lancashire Polytechnic when it became the first HE institution to have "associate" FE colleges 11 years ago. He developed the model further with seven associate colleges for Middlesex.
For most of the 1980s and early 1990s, such developments suggested a switch to an American community college-style FHE sector. But with a freeze on HE expansion and the 1992 FHE Act raising the profile of FE, the post-16 landscape was reshaped further.
Professor Melville has been with both tides of change and talks of a comprehensive approach post-16, with FE at the centre. "It is a sector in its own right," he said. "FE will expand to embrace the rest, rather than the other way round. Look at every other sector, they are more narrowly defined than FE which covers everything from basic literacy to HE.
"School intake is defined by age, FE is not. Colleges have a unique role which cannot be met by any other part of the education system. They deliver more of the National Targets for Education and Training than any other sector."
He pledges to maintain and strengthen the autonomy of college principals and their boards. But he expects something in return: "I want to give them autonomy but with a central focus and agreement on what must be achieved."
He has already started down this road in HE as chair of the Committee of Chancellors and Vice Principals' long-term strategy group. At the FEFC, he will continue some of the central strategies started under Sir William such as "convergence" of funding - eliminating extreme differences in course costs among colleges. The Stubbs edict of no autonomy without financial responsibility and probity remains.
"Students should not be penalised simply for living near a college with low average levels of spending," he said. "But at the same time, the funding formula should recognise the costs of specialist needs and expensive courses. I don't believe in a grey average funding system."
Professor Melville will not pronounce on the nitty-gritty of funding plans until he is sitting in Sir William's seat on September 1 with the evidence of three years' FEFC work before him. Before then, he wants help from as many people who will talk to him over an appropriate model for FE.
"We have still to find an appropriate model of provision. HE to a large extent knows where it is going - Dearing Review number three will help - as do schools. We need an idea of where we will be in 10 years time and to be able to reduce that definition to fit neatly on one side of an envelope."
In giving principals more autonomy he will also demand closer co-operation with school sixth-forms, which, he says, will see a resurgence, adult education, TECs employers and HE.
The key to it all starts with closer co-operation with TECs, he says citing his own experience. At Middlesex, the university and seven colleges invest Pounds 150 million in education and training. The TEC puts in Pounds 30 million. "It is just not sensible to treat these budgets in competition, and so we developed a compact."
"The key short-term is to overcome the tensions between autonomy and competition. One of the FEFC functions must be to shift that line over the next three to five years in favour of co-operation."