Why trust and honesty are the best policies

6th December 2002 at 00:00
Ian Ansdell talks to four FE principals to find out why their colleges are free from the strife that afflicts so many others

Funding is only one constraint exercising Glasgow principal Chris Hunter, of the College of Nautical Studies. "FE has performed so successfully that the settlement across the sector is inadequate," he says. "We have developed so far in advance of any meaningful reward that we may encounter a couple of difficult years ahead."

Like his counterparts, he believes in trust."We like to provide stability, a long-term strategy and a very clear sense of direction. That aim is communicated and shared with all the staff so that there's a sense of ownership of our collective future. That depends on trust built up over a period of time."

However, he considers that colleges themselves should be the focus of a good deal more trusting.

"The Scottish Further Education Funding Council should trust the managements of colleges," he says. "I like the idea of trust engendering real autonomy in colleges so that they can get on with what they're really good at, which is delivering education and training.

"The council should take a step back and allow colleges to respond to the desires of their markets." For the Nautical College, those markets seem, to the outsider, peculiarly diverse - or, as Mr Hunter prefers, "eclectic". Students come from all over the world for studies with the expected nautical content. For example, there's close liaison with an institution in India for which the college provides the second year of an HND, so there are at least 100 Indian students each year.

These prospective mariners and engineers rub shoulders with students of beauty therapy, dance, drama and childcare. For Mr Hunter, these represent niche markets which meet a growing demand. In a college where grant in aid represents only 45 per cent of total income compared with upwards of 75 per cent elsewhere, these are income streams in a diversified portfolio which give a breadth to the college's risk management.

From an international urban college to one that's proud of its small-town status and rural catchment. . . the differences between the Nautical and Angus College in Arbroath are marked. A former economist who later spent 20 years at Fife College, John Burt found a good base to work from when he arrived as principal in 1995.

"The college finances were sound and at that stage we were in an era of growth, so we were able to concentrate on curriculum expansion," he explains. "Our student numbers have doubled in five years and we've created a network of high quality learning centres in the community at Montrose, Forfar, Kirriemuir and Brechin."

In 1996 Angus set itself a vision of becoming "Scotland's most prominent community college" and, Mr Burt says, the staff bought into it. "Our success has been to be in the community for the community, and that's indicated by the rise in student numbers and the local support we get from people such as schools, the council and enterprise company."

But he says:"We still had to take difficult decisions because, across the sector, the value of the unit of funding was coming down and year-on-year you had to make efficiency improvements, albeit from a higher base."

Mr Burt echoes his colleagues in extolling an old-fashioned virtue. "Honesty is not the best policy - it's the only policy," he says.

"The success of the sector and of our college is down to the commitment of staff. We work hard at maintaining good relationships and I often say that the staff of the college are as well informed as the board. It pays off in terms of the commitment and flexibility we get in working arrangements."

It's also helpful in maintaining low staff turnover despite potentially lucrative alternative careers for ICT, construction and engineering professionals in an area of Scotland with a buoyant labour market. Mr Burt identifies as a key challenge the financial expectations of staff who are seeking salary comparability with industry or schools.

He may be in a position to influence the outcome in his wider role as part-time FE development director at the funding council, establishing a team of seconded expertise from different disciplines across the sector to help struggling colleges.

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