EDUCATION Secretary David Blunkett has stripped business leaders of their controlling interest on college boards less than a month after the Prime Minister insisted they should have the dominant role in post-16 education.
Mr Blunkett's decision, taken in the light of a series of high-profile management problems at colleges such as Bilston, the Wirral and Halton, is not entirely unexpected. But the extent of reforms to the constitution of governing boards has surprised many FE leaders.
Eyebrows were raised even at the highest levels of the Further Education Funding Council, which issued the edict on Mr Blunkett's behalf. One official described Government policy on the role of industry and commerce as "decidedly schizophrenic".
Several college principals told The TES this week that they would "manoeuvre" their way round the new regulations, using tactics such as redefining business representatives as "community governors".
The leader of a large east London college said: "The Department for Education and Employment seems to have no idea of the time devoted by business people or of the value they are to colleges."
Another FEFC source said: "It is intriguing - these modifications are clearly off-message compared with others we get from Number 10 and The Treasury.
"One has to ask whatever happened to the Cabinet enforcer (Jack Cunnigham) on this occasion."
The Association of Colleges argued against sweeping reforms in recent months. While the chief executive David Gibson agreed that there could be benefits in reconstituting boards, he has warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
An AOC spokesperson said this week that local accountability was important. "It remains our view that the colleges need the opportunity to ensure that the composition of their own boards reflect the locality.
"That includes making sure there is adequate representation from key stakeholders, students, staff and others."
During consultations on the reform the association received overwhelming objections from college leaders opposed to cuts in business representation. Many smelt the whiff of old Labour stalwarts wanting a return to greater LEA influence. They challenged the notion that councillors with often little more than a handful of votes were more representative than industry.
At present, at least half the governors of a board must come from business. From August 1 this is revised down to a maximum of one-third. Most surprisingly, college leaders say, Mr Blunkett's reforms leave staff and parents, if they have a tame chair of governors, in a position to dominate the board and marginalise the interests of local authorities and business.
Employer representatives with the training and enterprise councils also lose their right to seats. Local authorities will have the right to as many as three places on a board, the maximum size being 20 members.
The new rules require proper training of governors and tough new audits and the right of the FEFC to nominate two governors to any board where a college causes concern.
However, internal checks and balances on finances are also to be abolished, against the advice of the FEFC. At present, boards are required to establish a remuneration committee and committees to advise on "financial matters and employment policy." The DFEE is understood to have told the council that funding issues are now so straightforward they no longer need to have a remuneration committee.
College leaders told The TES that what was being imposed locally seemed to bear no resemblance to the national political landscape.
The recent White Paper on post-16 reforms puts employers in the driving seat. Last minute intervention by Tony Blair in the drafting of the paper ensured that employers would be the dominant group on the Learning and Skills Council for England and on the 40 to 50 local learning councils.