Much has been reported lately about the decline in trade union membership within the FE sector.
This trend has been reported by NATFHE, for example, but in contrast the Association for College Management has seen a continued increase in its membership since incorporation, despite the sometimes radical and challenging changes affecting colleges since gaining independence.
It is evident from debate with members through a series of regional meetings this year that there are two main reasons why they value their association with ACM.
The first and most important is the level of support members receive when they need it. Those attending the meetings have spoken about the value of being able to pick up the phone and speak directly to the general secretary or one of the team of caseworkers. This demonstrates that when support is needed, members expect a high-quality, individualised service.
The second reason given is that ACM behaves like a responsible professional organisation committed to its values, which in themselves reflect the need for the FE sector as a whole to be successful.
Formed in 1987 in anticipation of incorporation and continuously shaped by a new culture, ACM does not have the same baggage as some of its contemporaries. Being a modern organisation, ACM is committed to being a union and professional body based upon best corporate management practice, meeting not only the needs of the FE sector but also those of its members whose livelihood depends on continued employment beyond the millennium.
If students' needs are met, then institutions will flourish and this in turn will secure employment for ACM members. Members put the needs of their students before their own needs.
ACM members do not believe that they have a right to employment. They know that this is a privilege to be earned. The focus must be on the quality of the students' learning experience, not only on the security of jobs for staff.
The conflict which some unions have sought between themselves and employers has not only damaged the sector but has created an enormous amount of anxiety for individual members.
When it comes to responsible employee relations, some unions not only give the sector a bad name but they also end up shooting themselves in the foot by being unable to resolve what should be a collegiate approach to problem solving.
Staff and governors as stakeholders should work to resolve a problem in a realistic and responsible manner and this is what ACM seeks to do. We agree with the Association of Colleges that the college sector should be seen to have a problem-solving approach, rather than one of problem-sharing.
ACM is committed to the development of corporate teams where problems within the college are resolved by accepting a collective responsibility.
Withdrawing labour is like burying one's head in the sand in the belief that this is the way problems are resolved.
In a mature world it is understood that sometimes the decisions that have to be taken may be unpalatable to some individuals but working through them and sharing in their acceptance provides ownership of the process and helps people to come to terms with change.
As we move towards the millennium and beyond, it is crucial for all staff to become proactive stakeholders in an incorporated college.
Trade unions which do not have a strategy for operating in the post-incorporation environment will, I would suggest, fail to attract the members they desperately need to maintain their viability.
ACM recognises that its members work in excess of their contractual commitments and this is why there has never been a contracts issue for managers.
This is, of course, recognised as unsustainable. With new methods of delivery and work-based learning coupled with the imagination and professional expertise of staff, ACM believes it is within the grasp of all stakeholders to make the necessary changes and so improve working conditions to the good of the whole sector. Much good practice exists within the sector and this is to the credit of all staff.
ACM acknowledges that FE does not have the monopoly on training and post-16 education, and is working with the Government, FEFC, AOC, TECs, local authorities and other bodies on an innovative curriculum to improve the quality of learning for the student.
Partnership is the key to resolving the challenge of participation rather than destructive and mindless conflicts.
ACM further believes that the challenge for our members is to secure the financial viability of the sector. The fact that some institutions are funded in a differential basis makes it difficult to put the case to Government that the size of the quantum should be increased.
The level of funding available to students in sector colleges is inadequate when compared to that available in higher education and school sixth forms. The collective objective should be to ensure that Government realises that value for money per successful student through FE is the most cost-effective way of meeting national targets.
The sector should not be diverted by internal wrangling over the average level of funding, demand-led budgets and franchising, but be seen to be working together on widening participation.
This is why ACM as a stakeholder remains committed to partnership as a major component of its model of success.
Ray Dowd is principal of Hopwood Hall College in Greater Manchester, and president of the Association for College Management.