Sunday, 6 May 2012

You’re a Frog! - Not French but German Competiveness, Full Circle with Profits

The College Executive went back to the V+A last week for the first of this year’s regular planning and review meetings. While the sun shone outside we were locked in an airless room for two days working our way through our strategic, operational and academic plans, all of which came with the impossible to read on screen and too big to print off financial spreadsheets. Good progress was made on both days.

At the end of day one, while sipping a fresh lemonade before dinner, (and thankfully the V+A now has a new menu) in walked Nick Hewer of Apprentice fame. The Apprentice is a reality television show in which young business men and women undertake a series of business challenges in a competition where the prize is a £100k job with Lord Sugar in one of his companies.

Nick Hewers role in the programme is to observe one of the teams as they undertake the tasks and then report back on the efforts of the various participants. He is famous for his droll comments, and facial expressions that convey his incredulity, and amazement at the antics of the contestants. But I had thought him to be a good egg despite this make believe facade – after all despite having a house in France, he  also spends a lot of his time living in his native England.

So it was with some surprise that when our eyes met across the room, and I raised my glass in salute he spurned the friendly gesture with a characteristic grimace. I was well and truly snubbed. Interesting to note, none of the 7 winners he helped select over the years, still works for Alan Sugar. I think the makers of the BBC impression programme Dead Ringers probably had it right when they had Sir Alan saying ‘you’re a frog’ rather than the more familiar ‘you’re fired’.

And this week I also met someone who in his time has both fired a number of people, but who has also been passionate about the concept of apprenticeships as an example of how Britain might grow it’s manufacturing base and maintain its competiveness on the world stage. Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine (Lord Heseltine) delivered this month’s VC Lecture. He was a major force in British politics for a considerable number of years. Now retired, and not looking anything like his 78 years of age, he is a self made millionaire, a keen gardener and passionate arboriculturist as well as still contributing to British political life.

He was impressive, and delivered a captivating paper on how Britain might regain its competitive edge. Interestingly, he cited the German experience as something we might want to consider. In Germany, there are proportionally fewer Universities per head of population than in the UK. What they do have are a much greater number of technical colleges (Fachhochschulen) that produce legions of well educated workers able to meet the German manufacturing industry needs for a skilled workforce.

It these institutions that provide the educational underpinning to many German apprenticeships and these days the Fachhochschulen also undertake research projects which are usually sponsored by industry. Lord Heseltine wondered whether the British Higher Education system might better serve the needs of industry by developing stronger partnerships between the private and public sector, and producing graduates able to more effectively deliver a workforce capable of increasing the UKs competiveness.

I remained open minded about this, and in any event it’s probably important to be keep at least one wary eye open around such developments. This week it was announced that the UK Government is to allow Circle to keep the first £2m of its ‘profits’ from running Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire. In Febuary 2012, Circle became the first private firm to be enabled to run a NHS hospital, a hospital that currently has £40m worth of debts. Its nice business if you can get it.