Saved, with a little help from the minister's mistress

27th February 2004 at 00:00
I always try to avoid air travel. It's not the fear of flying that makes me break out in a cold sweat, nor the near certainty that I'll catch whatever choice of fowl virus is being recirculated that day, but rather the terror of being stuck next to some garrulous enthusiast for an hour or more.

So it was with some trepidation that I booked myself on the shuttle to Heathrow last week. Imagine my relief when I found myself sitting next to a well-known member of the funding council. While his renown is not for any inhibition in expressing his many opinions, I was sure he would feel suitably constrained in the presence of a minor college board member.

To start with, all was well. Apart from the expected benediction of recognition bestowed on the lower orders, he remained focused on ordering a free drink, leaving your correspondent to attempt a few more riveting chapters of the latest ministerial letter of guidance. Just as my eyelids were drooping (it was page two, after all), a voice at my elbow spoke: "So how is Muddleshire?"

I assured him that all was well in the best possible of worlds, observing as always the college omerta we have sworn, and hoping that my chummy yet profoundly insincere smile would do the trick.

"You sound just like your principal," he said accusingly. I attempted to explain that sounding like a principal was not necessarily a social faux pas, but my inquisitor was not easily distracted. "So it can't be long now before old George retires," he asked in that rhetorical way beloved of bureaucrats. "We've been giving some thought to what happens after he goes".

I decided on the careful neutral response we normally use for either HMI or the criminally insane. "Yes, finding a good principal is an important role for a board."

"Indeed, but the council also has an unwritten ministerial directive to ensure we don't have any repetition of previous, what shall we say, misjudgments."

I fed this information through my internal bureauspeak software program. A warning message was flashed back almost instantly. "Danger. Threat to autonomy. Launch immediate counter-attack."

"I feel I must point out that the entire board has sworn to resign should there be any interference at this stage."

"Yes, we had rather expected that, but I'm afraid we may have to insist."

After all, he added with the sort of facial grimace that anthropologists would interpret as a warning rather than a smile, "ASC has set up a pool of flying board members ready for dispatch to any trouble spot at the drop of a hat. So there will be no trouble replacing any who fall on their swords."

It was then I realised that officials with cunning plans had replaced enthusiasts at the top of my hate list. This called for drastic measures.

"How interesting," I said. "You know I often wondered why old George insisted that we have the mistress of a senior frontbench minister as a board member. And why he was always so proud of his nephew - you know, that rather unpleasant reporter with the Herald."

There was a moment while this information was absorbed.

"Of course," he replied smoothly, "there are always exceptions, for example in your case, where we have absolute confidence in the board to make a good choice."

Which all goes to show that it never is what you know that matters in Scottish further education but who is doing what with whom.

I'm happy to report that the remainder of the flight passed in blissful silence and that the advertisement for George's replacement is attracting an excellent calibre of candidate.

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