Testing times ahead for next chair of rural college

Within the offices of lie a heap of applications from those who would like to take over from Pat Machray as the next chairman of the SRUC board of directors.

The role of SRUC chairman would appear to be a 'plum job', writes Andrew Arbuckle. Picture: Contributed

He stands down in October and his departure opens the door for someone to take over chairing this organisation with its annual turnover of about £80 million.

Scotland’s Rural College, as it likes to style itself, has six educational campuses, 20-odd advisory offices scattered throughout the country and a fair portfolio of land and farm buildings. There are more than 1,000 lecturers, advisers, research workers, farm staff, scientists and others employed and who make the organisation tick.

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There are few areas of work in rural Scotland where SRUC is not influential, so this opportunity to chair its board should appear to be a plum job.

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The trouble is that, below the surface, things are not rosy, with a number of major challenges ahead as well as a number of inconsistencies.

Eighteen months ago, the then acting principal commenting on SRUC which had just been formed from four rural colleges, stated that some rationalisation of property had to take place. This seemed logical as any business amalgamation results in there being a few parts surplus to new requirements.

However, this trimming appears to have been largely shuffled off to one side by the new principal, whose last publicly spoken words were on developing SRUC into a research and educational institution operating on the world stage. An incoming chairman might therefore have to decide which of the rocky roads to take. Selling assets can be tricky, with former students, local politicians and descendants of the people who donated the property tending to object fiercely to any such moves.

The route to worldwide influence is mightily ambitious. It requires top level people leading it and networks of researchers working together to succeed.

Neither road for SRUC could be classified as risk-free. In reality finding a path forward in either will be very challenging.

There is another problem for an incoming chairman and that is the review going on in the organisation. This means what is being done may be changed and may be changed ere he or she gets their behind settled in the top seat. In other words, the successful applicant will have to carry out someone else’s plan.

For those who wish to be chair of SRUC, there is also the elephant in the room – the Scottish Government. Theoretically the politicians have nothing to do with the college but the reality is the Government is a major funder of the advisory services. It also provides almost half the funding for the research being carried out and it is indirectly a major funder of the student body.

Tallied up, Scottish Government money dominates all three legs of the SRUC. Therefore maintaining a good relationship with the politicians will be vital, especially when budgets are under pressure.

It must be admitted that there is a financial reward for becoming SRUC chairman. £24,500 per annum sounds pretty good, especially as it is only for 30 to 40 days’ work a year.

But this ignores the reality that human beings do not switch off from work like robots. Whoever chairs the SRUC carries that responsibility every day of the week. Three days’ work per month is surely a joke.

The chairman’s salary should also be seen relative to some of the high earners in the college and there are no fewer than seven employees being paid in excess of £100,000. Does this give an indication of the chairman’s relative unimportance?

It is curious that none of the existing board came forward for the job. The two previous chairmen, Machray and Lord Lindsay, spent time on the board finding out the minutiae of the college before being elevated to the hot seat.

Just whose name is pulled out of the hat could be described as interesting but then “interesting” can also be considered a curse.