Strikes, tribunals, sackings - but Newcastle is commended for U-turn in standards. Joseph Lee reports
It is a college where staff went on strike seven times last year after being threatened with the sack unless they signed new contracts.
Union officials say it has put more of its lecturers on warnings about alleged incompetence than all its neighbours combined.
But Newcastle college has now been named as a finalist for a government-backed "teamwork" award in a national contest for public service.
The beacon college, rated outstanding by Ofsted, is competing against two rivals - including Burnley college student services team - for the education team prize in the Public Servant of the Year awards.
Its nomination follows an award for being the best company in its part of the North-east.
But not everyone is happy. Iain Owens, north-east regional organiser for the lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Staff will find it difficult to take seriously that an employer who gives dismissal notices to all its teaching staff can be up for a teamwork award.
"There are more lecturers on capability procedures in this college than in the whole of the rest of the North-east put together."
The judges were impressed by the college's turnaround since 2000, when it suffered from falling student numbers, poor inspection reports and financial difficulties.
They praised the restructuring, investment in new buildings and the use of inspectors to scrutinise classroom standards and teachers' performance.
The college's income has almost doubled over five years, paving the way for more investment in state-of-the-art facilities, the judges said.
But some insiders say the success has come at the cost of low staff morale and a blame culture.
"There's a kick-the-cat philosophy," one said. "The head of department gets kicked, so he kicks the junior managers, and they kick the lecturers."
Jackie Fisher, the principal, once told FE Focus: "It is not my way to go around cuddling people. I have never suffered fools gladly. In fact, I don't suffer fools at all."
Tension between the new regime and existing staff was revealed by the dispute over contract changes which prompted seven one-day strikes last year.
It also provoked Natfhe to take the rare step of calling for a boycott of the college, urging its members not to apply for jobs there.
Lecturers said the changes could force them to work longer hours for less pay. But the college said the maximum number of working hours in a year would remain fixed and that it merely wanted lecturers to be more flexible.
The college eventually won, with all but one of the rebels backing down in response to the threat of dismissal.
Neil Sharp, a lecturer-governor who quit after 26 years rather than accept the new contract, said: "The college management is effective in certain ways. It has been fairly successful in improving things like exam results and other statistics.
"But it's a harsh environment to work in. The principal said the morale of staff wasn't her business - her business was the bottom line, targets and statistics."
The former Natfhe branch chairman said he had attended hearings for several lecturers whose ability was criticised, and that many had quit because they were offered no support to improve.
The college declined to comment on the union's criticisms of its selection for the award.
John Dallinson, vice-principal, described the nomination as a "privilege"
and an "honour".
"To deliver change of this magnitude and to sustain change over such a period requires commitment to purpose and teamwork," he said.
The award is backed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, the Cabinet Office, the Office of Government Commerce and opinion pollsters MORI. It is run by Public Finance magazine.