Bogus course inquiry widens

Lucy Ward

Police investigating allegations of fraud involving bogus courses at Bournville College are preparing a submission to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Fraud squad inquiries into the franchised classes at the Birmingham college have extended into both the north and south of England. Officers say the initial phase of the investigation will be completed within weeks.

Among the areas believed to have been targeted by the two West Midlands CID officers working on the case are Middlesbrough and Luton - both said to have been centres for courses run as part of the franchised operation.

The developments in the fraud investigation have prompted some commentators in further education to question the wisdom of widespread franchising. A prominent spokesman on quality control in the sector has attacked the way the system has often worked in practice.

Paul Gallagher, principal of Bradford and Ilkley Community College and a member of the Further Education Funding Council's quality assessment committee, said: "What has been hailed in various journals as entrepreneurial has often in fact been little more than operating back-street clip joints."

Dr Gallagher, a key figure in the establishment of national FE standards, called for stringent quality-control measures, and insisted that the practice of franchising - whereby colleges fund other education providers such as community groups or private training organisations to deliver courses on their behalf - must be driven by sound educational and social motives rather than by financial interests.

Bournville called in the police last February after discovering that many courses funded by the college but supposedly run by groups in the community did not exist. The college had already paid Pounds 140,000 to four franchise providers, but cancelled further payments of almost Pounds 1 million after holding its own investigation. Principal Patricia Twyman said the college was continuing to co-operate fully with police inquiries.

Detective Inspector Steve Forrest, overseeing the inquiry, said he expected to submit a report within weeks to the CPS, who will decide whether the case should go to court.

Meanwhile the funding council's chief inspector Terry Melia is expecting to address franchising issue in his second annual report into quality and standards, and an FEFC working party on guidelines is due to report in December.

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