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Breaking down the self-selecting oligarchy

College governing bodies are in danger of becoming self-selecting "magic circles" of local worthies, The TES survey shows.

"The decisions made by the governing body on its constitution and on its future membership are among the key issues within its remit," says the Further Education Funding Council's Guide for College Governors. It's another way of saying governing bodies are self-selecting. Among the many other new responsibilities that incorporation brought with it came the responsibility to decide whom you are going to work with.

Some governing bodies are delighted to be rid of elected representatives. Audrey Simpson at Brighton College of Technology says the new system "isn't democratic but democracy may not throw up the best governors". A proprietor of holiday flats, a former president of Brighton's Hoteliers Association and a magistrate, she knows a lot of people. Once an approach has been made, she and the principal will lunch with a prospective governor "to make sure the personality gels".

Peter Fox, the farmer who chairs the governors at Bishop Burton College of Agriculture, says crisply: "We got rid of the LEA governors. The college is a business. You need someone who can contribute. The democratic process does not always provide significant contributors." But the new regime makes others uncomfortable. George Mardle at Stoke on Trent College says: "A problem for governing bodies is that people are not there as of right. It's a self-perpetuating oligarchy." Ray Waller at Hartlepool College of FE resents the fact that only two employees or elected members of local authorities are allowed, while at least half must be from business or TECs.

Mr Mardle and Mr Waller compensate by appointing nominees of community interests. This is unusual. Most governing bodies appoint individuals, so they can be sure the appointee will fit in.

Brighton's Mrs Simpson headhunts individuals with skills. When the governing body wanted a solicitor, she knew just whom to go to. Many governing bodies seem to feel incomplete without certain professional skills. Lawyers, accountants and surveyors are the most popular.

But should you make use of governors in this way? Wendy Farrow at Daventry Tertiary College says: "If we want legal advice we should buy it. If we want financial advice we have auditors". Bob Sowman of Bradford and Ilkley Community College puts it more firmly: "We have professional firms of accountants, auditors and solicitors, all of whom we pay to do a job, supported by the professionals within the employment of the College. Why do we need them on the governing body as well?" Every chair of governors we spoke to professed a determination to keep the selection of governors out of the hands of a "magic circle" of local worthies who play golf with the right people. But the words "lunch" and "who do we know?" recurred in interview after interview.One way of avoiding the "magic circle", according to the FEFC, is to advertise for governors in the local press. Only three in our survey - Yeovil, Hinckley and Daventry Colleges - have advertised. Two more intend to advertise, and one is thinking about it. John Ault at Yeovil sees advertisement as a way to stop being self-perpetuating, and his advertisement says: "The rewards are great but the salary is nil."

Governors cannot quite escape the problem that they are no longer formally responsible to anyone in particular. Whatever the shortcomings of the old system, at least they knew to whom they must answer for their decisions: the council, the electors, even their political party. Who should they answer to now?

"To the community we live in, and in a much more diffuse way the country as a whole" says John Ault. Ivor Hockman at Woodhouse Sixth Form College says: "First the local community, then our students, then - as employers - to our staff. I don't see any wider responsibility to the country."

Many governors believe they are responsible to the local community. But how, without elected representatives, can they judge what the community wants? John Ault says: "You have to assess what it wants. We do surveys, we talk to parents and students and others in the community." Colin Tagg at Dunstable College says: "As external members we understand what industry in this area wants and will want in five to ten years."

Others do not mention the local community at all. John Roberts at Henley College says: "We are responsible to the students. On our logo it says: 'Students first'."

But professions of accountability to students are also hollow as professions of accountability to the community, and for the same reason, as Bob Sowman of Bradford and Ilkley Community College admits: "We're accountable to our clients the students, but they can't remove us. We're accountable to the community in a broad sense and to public opinion, but it's difficult to tap into it and possible to ignore it. I'm not enamoured of the way we are accountable. "

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