It is with a tinge of sadness and a measure of pride that I write this, my final column as Association of Colleges’ President, before handing over the baton to Chris Morecroft, Principal of Worcester College and the AoC’s third President, at the end of July. In the final days of my Presidency – and in the early days of the Coalition Government – I thought I would explore what this past year has meant to me and I will conclude with a few pointers to what I imagine the year ahead will hold for my successor and for Further Education.
When I took over from Dr. David Collins, I was only the second AoC President and, increasingly, the role of the President has become more clearly defined. Last summer, in my first, admittedly nerve-wracking, national media interview I identified three key aspects of the role. These were: to work with the AoC leadership team and Board to continue to develop the Association as a first class membership service; to be the voice of Colleges, students, staff and the communities they serve and to be at the heart of policy-making for the sector.
Above all the President brings professional practice and experience of College life to the table. Although the role itself demands a high level of energy, particularly if combined with a position as a Principal, it is manageable and I have been able to rely on a strong, well-established management team at St Helens College. There is a benefit in being rooted in the day-to-day running of a College; I have practical experience of the direct impact upon Colleges of the policies I have worked to influence at national level.
I did not realise when I was thinking of becoming a candidate what an exceptional year it would prove to be in terms of the issues around the capital project and Train to Gain, nor did I anticipate the full scale of the cuts to adult funding. However, it is a considerable honour to be elected President by one’s peers and during my tenure many things have happened to remind me why I am so proud to work in FE. The position also places an enormous responsibility on the individual to represent Colleges effectively.
Not unlike the annual routines within Colleges themselves, there is a cycle to the Presidential year. The autumn sees the launch of the frenzied annual conference season; both for the political parties and the AoC’s own showpiece event in November. Colleges’ Week, also in November, sees a more intense period of media coverage of FE. The Parliamentary calendar creates a timetable for meetings with politicians, select committees and civil servants to discuss all manner of issues facing Colleges, from Lord Browne’s Review of Higher Education and Chris Banks’ review of FE fees to working to ensure the voice of Colleges was reflected in the political parties’ manifestos. This year the General Election also created an extended period of purdah and the formation of the new Coalition Government has created uncertainties, challenges and possibilities.
Inevitably there are some disappointments along the way – things you would like to have done but couldn’t because of prior commitments, or the vagaries of Mother Nature. I was all packed and ready for a trip to the American Community College’s convention in April only to be grounded last-minute due to the volcanic ash spewing out of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull. I will not miss the ‘have suitcase, will travel’ aspect of the role, nor the numerous hotel rooms and, inevitably, it is not all exciting; some elements of the Presidency become routine.
The Presidency has, however, been an amazing experience and I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity. The highlights have been many and varied, including dinner at the House of Lords and attending events at the House of Commons, including the recent AoC Summer Parliamentary Reception hosted by Kelvin Hopkins MP, which saw the release of our Colleges Now and Beyond publication. The President’s speech at the AoC Annual Conference was a significant turning point for me in terms of my own experience. I had never spoken before at such a large event, or before such a large audience of my peers, and I will admit to being affected by both nerves and adrenalin but, once done, it has given me so much more confidence and that will stay with me.
Speaking at the party conference fringe meetings was also memorable in part because of the opportunity to read the political landscape and to identify ways of influencing it. Attendance at the conferences is hard work for Chris Walden, AoC Director of Public Affairs, and his team. Securing invitations to key events requires time and perseverance and meetings during conference involve fighting for space and seats in competition with everyone else who is attempting to influence the political debate.
It is hard to measure the impact of AoC’s campaigns, as well as that of individual contributions. This is very much a collective effort and, as our Chief Executive Martin Doel says, it is ‘a marathon and not a sprint’. Successes tend to be the consequence of sustained activity, often over extended periods, but successes there have certainly been; enhanced partnership working with a range of organisations; enhanced reputation and the celebration of successes across the College sector. I hope part of my legacy will be a more united sector with a clearer, more unified voice.
Looking to the future there are, to quote Dame Ruth Silver, reasons to be cheerful. The impact of the AoC’s political campaigns was evidenced within the opposition parties’ election manifestos. The early signs from the Coalition Government are promising; £200 million cut from the Train to Gain programme but reinvested into the sector; £150m into apprenticeships and £50m into capital.
Our new Minister for Further Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, John Hayes, has delivered his first major speech at City of Islington College. There is no doubting his enthusiasm for his brief, his determination to deliver on election promises, nor his ability to quote extensively from literary sources. We know that there will be challenging issues around funding and the future shape of the FE Colleges, but we have a Minister who shares our passion for lifelong learning.
If I summarise the experience of the year then the most challenging, but most developmental, has been squaring the national policy lines with the reality of life in College. College leaders can only plan according to the information they have, particularly at a detailed financial level. Our new Minister has a huge in-tray – the fees review for FE, the uncertainties arising from the adult curriculum framework (QCF), the funding agencies’ current priorities and the reality of a vastly complicated funding methodology – all of which have to be progressed if the Government is to deliver on their intention to free up Colleges.
I truly believe that this is a great beginning of a potentially different relationship with Government; it is not a time for cynicism or game-playing. I wish our new AoC President every success in working on our behalf to build on this promising start.
Pat Bacon is President of the Association of Colleges and Principal of St Helens College
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