The Association of Colleges was close to collapse after the disgrace of Roger Ward, its former chief executive, the newly-elected chairman, Jim Scrimshaw, has revealed.
"At one stage we felt as an association that our very survival was threatened," he told the inaugural conference of the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges in Newcastle, Co Down.
Colleges had withheld their subscriptions in protest at the AOC board's handling of the allegations of financial impropriety against the former chief executive.
Mr Scrimshaw, who is organisational development director of Telephone Cables Ltd and chair of governors at Barking College, was invited to speak about college governance. Without ever mentioning Mr Ward by name, Mr Scrimshaw noted that the AOC had its own problems of management and governance, which dominated the latter part of last year and the early part of this.
"At the start of the year we had a large number of colleges that had not paid their subscriptions. I am sure that Northern Ireland colleges are different, but English colleges always take time to pay their association subscriptions, but judged by normal standards there were a large and worrying number of non-payers." Speaking afterwards, he admitted that nearly half the colleges had withheld their subscriptions.
Mr Scrimshaw told the conference that after a difficult few months the association was now in good shape. "In February the board clarified its position and took the decision to allow new elections to take place. I believe that this was the only way we could ensure that we could command the full support of the sector.
"Following this decision the subscription renewals poured in, and we now have 97 per cent of colleges in England and Wales in membership - that is more than we had anticipated even when we budgeted the previous year.
"We have a new board which has a broad base of interests and good geographical representation. Early indications are that we can work well as a board and we certainly have some good people," he said.
Later the chairman said "the sleaze factor" influenced perception of the FE sector but claimed the number of cases involving corruption or sheer incompetence was very small. The Education and Employment Select Committee report on FE had confirmed that "the vast majority of colleges are running their affairs perfectly appropriately".
Mr Scrimshaw claimed the committee's proposal to open meetings of college boards to the public would detract from the real debate that takes place.
"There is a real risk that in-depth discussion, analysis and option evaluation would be moved to pre-meetings and discussions in offices and corridors, with the probable consequence that the meetings themselves would become less inclusive of the majority of members."
He was also concerned that governors were being pushed into day-to-day involvement in the colleges at the expense of strategic planning. "There must be a clear distinction between governance and management," he said.
Earlier Sue Dutton, acting chief executive of the AOC, also referred briefly to the sleaze issue when she warned that Northern Ireland colleges must maintain high standards of probity. "I can't emphasise enough the damage that can be done by individual acts; you may have some reports in The TES. The eyes will be on you in the same way as they have been on us," she told the conference.