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Apology over trip inquiry

OFFICIALS at the Further Education Funding Council were forced last week to apologise over an investigation into an pound;18,600 overseas student-recruitment trip undertaken by a college principal and his wife.

Kate Anderson, director of education and institutions at the council, attended the Kingston college governors' meeting to make an apology and "clear up any misunderstandings" caused by the six-month inquiry into Arthur Cotterell's 1998 trip to Taiwan.

With London regional director Jenny Burnette she expressed regret that the council's demands for information had been construed as an attack on the governors' decision to approve the trip, which lasted for 30 working days.

She said that, after a whistle-blower in the college had leaked news of the visit and press reports had appeared, the council had been obliged to check on the possible misuse of public funds and "reinforce governors' awareness of potentially controversial issues".

The FEFC's letters had been intended to "offer guidance on how contention could be avoided in the future" by tightening up on procedures. But she admitted that the council's own whistle-blowing charter might itself be in need of tightening-up.

Ms Anderson again apologised for not having come to the governors' meeting last November, which the council had been invited to attend. There was no implication that theFEFC thought governors had made an irrational decision, she said. But she thought there was a risk of criticism over the presence of the principal's wife on the trip.

Officials were taken to task by governor John Azah, an official of the Commission for Racial Equality, who pointed out the principal's wife was an ethnic Chinese and spoke the dialect of Taiwan. "This college is ethnically diverse and colleges should promote that diversity. The FEFC should be more sensitive to minority communities and do more to implement the recommendations of the Macpherson report (following the murder of Stephen Lawrence)."

Industrial governor Edward Bentall expressed surprise when Ms Anderson told him the investigation had been carried out by FEFC officials, mostly at regional level, but had never been reported to the council.

He added: "The implication that we did not look at this visit carefully and that we are the lackeys of the principal is quite hurtful. The governing body looked at it carefully and stands by its decision".

There were implications for other governing bodies and for the recruitment of overseas students in the future, he said. Some 30 students had subsequently been recruited.

Chairman of governors Lawrence Hardwicke said he hoped that the episode could be forgotten and good relations between the college and FEFC restored.

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