The people's charter

26th November 2004 at 00:00
A new campaign to "return Scotland's colleges to democratic control" has been launched by dissident lecturers.

Its leaders include Jim O'Donovan, current president of the Further Education Lecturers' Association, whose dismissal by Central College of Commerce led to a sharp rebuke by an employment tribunal. The case is still not resolved.

Another leader is Jim Higney, a lecturer at Coatbridge College and a past president of the official FE union who has frequently clashed with its parent organisation, the Educational Institute of Scotland.

The launch, at the Scottish Parliament, was sponsored by Dennis Canavan, the Independent Labour MSP. Six other MSP's sent messages of support. Mr Higney said the campaign's basic aim was to "bring colleges back under democratically accountable public control". It was not clear, however, whether this meant handing responsibility back to local authorities.

A new charter for further education launches a stinging attack on the predominance of business. The 1992 Act which established incorporated colleges stipulated that at least half of the members on boards of management had to represent business interests, and there was no right of representation for local authorities, unions or the voluntary sector.

"Results have been predictably disastrous," the charter states. "Private business people cannot be placed in charge of a public service and be expected to behave other than as business people.

"In true private sector fashion, they have lavished salary increases and perks on senior management and cut staffing to the bone, imposing the first compulsory redundancies in the public education service since 1945."

The campaigners say that union leaders have been singled out and sacked or disciplined at 10 colleges - Jewel and Esk Valley, Borders, Aberdeen, Reid Kerr, Langside, Falkirk, Motherwell, West Lothian, James Watt and Central.

The charter even goes on to accuse business representatives on college boards of helping to engineer skills shortages because of their antipathy to craft courses which they see as too expensive. "In no small part, the present skills shortage in construction, manufacturing, transport and even in the hospitality sector has been the result," it states.

The lecturers also claim the true picture in colleges is being covered up, as the funding council proclaims the success of having increased student numbers by 25 per cent over the past four years. "No mention is made of staffing levels, student satisfaction or skill areas that have been eliminated from the curriculum. The taxpaying public is invited to never mind the quality and feel the width."

In addition to its call for democratising college boards, the campaign will press for accumulated college deficits to be written off and for a return to national collective bargaining.

Neither college managements nor the Scottish Executive have shown any taste for the changes the lecturers are seeking. The EIS does not support any change in the current control of colleges. But it has been pressing for the reintroduction of national bargaining, arguing it is a "scandal" that wide salary gaps have opened up between colleges.

Mr Higney signalled the intention to apply pressure to Labour's heartlands.

"It is the intention to involve all trade unions who are concerned about the current management and funding of Scottish FE, along with constituency branches of political parties. We will also canvass support from the wider labour movement."

The Association of Scottish Colleges commented: "This campaign is disappointingly negative and backward-looking. Colleges have achieved great things and will do more in the future. It is not helpful to talk down the achievements of boards of management."

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