Ulster college debate `stifled'

Paul McGill

The Government has been accused of stifling debate in Northern Ireland by excluding staff from talks at key stages following its decision to give colleges independence.

But so far the expected stiff opposition from the education and library boards (local education authorities) to the move to bring the province into line with the mainland has failed to materialise.

Education minister Michael Antrim said this week that the government intended to press ahead with reforms for next autumn. His department will set up a working party to "examine the practical issues" and produce a report for December.

The report on the disposal of property and other resources in further education, the services offered by education and library boards and the problems of transferring staff, will be put out for wider consultation in January.

The group has a representatives from each of the five boards and four managers from the 17 colleges.

The education boards and college lecturers' union NATFHE branded it a hand-picked group of incorporation enthusiasts and protested over the hasty agenda.

Jimmy McKeown, the union's full-time official, complained that no staff representatives were in the group, that all the college members were from large institutions and that there were no community interests, such as FE governors or area board members.

Area boards, meanwhile, have largely accepted the loss of FE as a fait accompli.

At the annual conference of the Association of Education and Library Boards last week the new president Bill Watson failed to mention FE in his speech.

The only resolution on the subject opposed the capping of student places in further and higher education.

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, urged colleges to avoid following the English road to incorporation.

He said: "There is nothing wrong with devolving greater power and responsibility to individual schools and colleges.

"But in England we now have the spectacle of unelected and unaccountable governing bodies, often at loggerheads with staff over pay and conditions, running institutions which - in the madhouse of an almost unfettered market - compete with each other for students.

"If the minister is determined to go ahead with plans to make the FE colleges self-governing and have funding and policy controlled by his department, you are certainly not learning a lesson from us," Mr Foster said.

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