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Ulster learns the lessons of shake-up trauma

Michael Ancram, Northern Ireland Education Minister, announced this month that Ulster's 17 further education colleges will become self-governing with funding and policy controlled by his department.

The change, planned for April 1997, follows a three-year period of deliberation on educational administration in Northern Ireland. The FE sector united with one message: avoid the horrors of the English experience.

"There is a picture of hell from some colleges in England and we have to learn from this,'' said Hamilton Laird, head of business education at Fermanagh College, the furthest removed from the new centre of power in Bangor.

"The key things are curriculum and quality management. Everything in Britain seems to be finance-driven. The colleges that did best were those that kept their eye on the ball - good educational provision for their local community. "

Jimmy McKeown, regional official of the lecturers' union NATFHE, says the decision is more to do with Tory ideology than with the interests of Northern Ireland.

"Incorporation means that colleges will become the property of unelected and unaccountable governing bodies which are heavily weighted towards business interests."

But in Fermanagh, a small college with just over 1,300 full-time equivalent students, staff were less hostile to the change. Brian Rouse, who is only just settling into his new principal's chair, stresses the need for a system suited to Northern Ireland.

He does not want anybody imposing contracts on his college or taking unilateral decisions. He said: "The method by which we move forward must include staff, so that they are not alienated as they were in Britain where they were not consulted at all."

Another colleague was far more optimistic. "As somebody who came from the private sector, I'm all in favour of being in control of your own destiny and it will be up to us as a college to manage our resources.

"If the market says we should open on Saturday or in the summer, so be it, that is the way it has to be."

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