The open government apostle faces judgment

12th December 1997 at 00:00
Ian Nash talks to Labour peer Bryan Davies, the new FEFC chairman

A maxim Bryan Davies learned and lived by as an MP was "to always be aware that there are proper questions which people have a right to ask".

Shadow further and higher education spokesman under the last Labour Government, he lost his seat in May by the whim of the Boundary Commission. His Oldham seat vanished from the parliamentary map.

During his Commons years, he was respected as an even-handed chairman of committees. When he became Lord Davies of Oldham, David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, vowed to find a role for him to draw on his strengths.

That role has been found. But in it, his early maxim may yet come back to haunt him as the newly-appointed chairman of the Further Education Funding Council.

He will face a formidable lobby from college employers and trade unions for more cash. Indeed, FEFC chiefs at a conference of college managers in Harrogate last week indicated that they will no longer tolerate increased burdens on colleges without loudly voicing the demand for cash to match. They will expect him to take up the cudgel.

Lord Davies will take over the Pounds 37,000-a-year, two-day-a-week job from Bob Gunn in January. "The sector had good leadership under Bob Gunn and I intend to build on that," he told The TES. But he wants to take things much further. "I was convinced for many years that colleges - the long-neglected sector of FE - held the key to lifelong learning for this country. The Government is already making strides towards that reality."

Indeed, he helped to shape them in opposition, with a desire to see an end to demarcation lines in the spectrum of lifelong learning opportunities.

Helena Kennedy's report on widening participation, the New Deal, the Fryer Report and lifelong learning White Paper in the new year were priorities for colleges which should bring cash. As shadow minister for the colleges, he said in an interview with The TES: "I became enormously impressed by the flexibility of the sector."

But his connections with education as a practitioner as well as politician go back a long way. Lord Davies, 58, was Labour MP for Enfield North from 1974-79.For the next 13 years, he was secretary to the Parliamentary Labour Party until, in 1992, he became MP for Oldham Central and Royton.

Educated at University College, London, and the LSE, he married in 1963. He was a teacher from 1962-65, contested Central Norfolk in 1966 and then became a lecturer at Middlesex Polytechnic from 1965 until 1974, when he took his seat in Parliament.

The polytechnic was to become a new university under the Tories when they were removed from local education authority control, a road the colleges were to be sent down three years later. As a university, Middlesex had David Melville, now chief executive of the FEFC, as vice-chancellor.

Professor Melville drew 10 colleges into a partnership with the university and helped extend the network to draw in school sixth forms in a loose but well-defined web of co-operation and collaboration. The whole vision resembles that of Lord Davies's dream of a seamless education robe: "I have enormous respect for David Melville. We will work well together, I know."

Lord Davies is firmly rooted in a radical past. Initially an admirer of Tony Benn, due to his opposition to the EEC, for his first term in Parliament he was a member of both the Select Committee on Public Expenditure and on Overseas Affairs, committees on which the Left were most vocal.

He needs that radicalism now, as he faces a future of massive decentralisation, the carving up of groups of colleges into the regions, reflecting those of Government strategic planning intentions, and devolving many powers from head office in Coventry to regional offices.

The first fight with his former parliamentary political allies will come if David Blunkett fails to give colleges a strong say in the new regional development agencies.

But the Government's plans demand a trade-off and Lord Davies will also have to deal with college governing bodies vehemently opposed to relinquishing any of their Tory-given powers back to local authorities.

He is wedded to the Government's line that colleges must prove the need for every extra penny they request. "The broad strategy of the FEFC is Government policy, and the Secretary of State has made clear what is expected of the sector." But such a strategy does not come out of thin air, it requires close public consultation, he insists.

"Ministers depend on good sources of information coming back from groups like the FEFC and that means openness and full consultation."

It is here that his first big challenge as FEFC chairman may come.

"Changes are coming to the FEFC in common with a whole range of quangos: freedom of information and open government. It is very important that the work we do comes in for public scrutiny."

Lord Davies will be challenged to put his views on open government into practice and will be tested by his own maxim.

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