Peace plan in staffing battle

10th August 2007 at 01:00

Further Education Minister Bill Rammell embroiled in dispute amid enrolment fears for Harlow college

A RESCUE plan has been agreed with Harlow college amid fears that a dispute over new staff contracts threatens to damage enrolments in September.

Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, has found himself embroiled in the dispute because the college is in his Essex constituency.

The high-profile battle between principal Colin Hindmarch and the University and College Union has involved campaigners inside and outside the college who are opposed to the changes.

They include a group of over-50s fearful of cuts to adult education.

The UCU objected after lecturers were invited to effectively reapply for their jobs under new conditions which involved going through an appraisal process. According to a Learning and Skills Council report, the large number of new staff and outstanding vacancies could affect the "learner experience".

The college lost 79 staff through its "selection process". These, the LSC says, included 26 who declined offers despite achieving acceptable interview scores. Its report says: "We infer from this that some expertise has been lost to the college."

The LSC says the growth of the college could be damaged by adverse publicity, locally and nationally. It also fears enrolment could be hit as a result of bad publicity, with the college losing fee income.

The LSC has drawn up an action plan to bring stability to the college, which includes introducing two new governors.

News of the report coincided with a public meeting about the situation in Harlow on Sunday, chaired by Mr Rammell. Mr Hindmarch says he maintains an open door policy at the college and felt no need to attend.

He says the college has been targeted by the UCU because of its high-profile local MP. "I don't blame Bill Rammell for this. He has to be MP for somewhere," he said. "I can't see any reason other than the fact that Bill Rammell is the local MP and further and higher education minister."

It is anticipated that one of the new governors will be someone with a trades union background.

Under the LSC plan, the college has also agreed to accept support from the Quality Improvement Agency and to work, with LSC support, to improve its relations with the wider community in Harlow.

Mr Hindmarch while stressing he will comply with the LSC's wishes claims there is no evidence that the enrolments are threatened.

The UCU denies picking on the college and claims its actions have been vindidated by the LSC's intervention.

Barry Lovejoy, head of the UCU's colleges department, said: "It's not a question of us picking on the college. An enormous proportion of the teaching staff have left, many of whom were very experienced and highly rated. This loss of expertise risks damage to the college's reputation and must put enrolment prospects at risk."

The college plans a series of "awaydays" to develop a team ethos. Mr Hindmarch says staffing is close to the required level, with vacancies still being filled.

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