Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Former Telecoms Man Heeds FE's Call: Fe News

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Former Telecoms Man Heeds FE's Call: Fe News

Article excerpt

He takes over at college despite lack of education background.

Until five months ago, John Thornhill had never worked in a college. But now he finds himself leading the country's largest FE institution, The Manchester College.

The former BT executive, who most recently headed the company's business IT division, was headhunted by the college as part of an effort to bring in management skills from the business world and to increase its commercial income. He becomes one of the first people without a background in education to lead a college.

Mr Thornhill spent 24 years with the telecoms giant before taking the reins in October 2012 as chief executive of The Manchester College, whose Pounds 187 million turnover is the largest in FE - and larger than many universities'.

But its size has not deterred Mr Thornhill from beginning a review into the structure of the organisation, which now refers to itself as TMC Group to reflect the way it combines a general FE college, a prison education service and training provider subsidiaries.

The review could even result in the TMC Group floating a company on the stock market, in line with the call made in 2010 by former Skills Funding Agency chief executive Geoff Russell for profit-making companies to run colleges or for the creation of mutual co-operatives, such as the one proposed last year at Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Colleges cannot be entirely privatised as their corporations have to protect their assets. But these assets can be kept in a separate trust, allowing the creation of a company to run anything from back-office services to the teaching itself.

At Birmingham Metropolitan College, this company was to be a cooperative where staff would share in any surpluses generated by efficiency. But a large enough college or colleges could equally be run by a profit-making company that is traded on the stock exchange.

"At the moment, the college is an incorporated charity and there are separate divisions with their own profit and loss," Mr Thornhill said. "Going forward, the key question for us is: using the freedoms and flexibilities - what does that mean? Is there a debate about being a PLC; is there a debate about joint ventures?" Mr Thornhill emphasised, however, that no particular option was currently favoured and the college could remain an incorporated charity.

The review at Manchester will take between eight and 10 weeks and will involve consultation with the unions. The college has had a turbulent relationship with the University and College Union (UCU) in recent years, with a protest over changes to pay and conditions in 2010 leading to the college leadership breaking off relations with the union. …

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