COLLEGE governing bodies should be led by paid directors with the skills needed to head multi-million pound companies, according to the chief inspector for adult learning.
College governance needs to be brought into line with other organisations, such as health trusts, local authorities and many non-departmental public bodies, where the most senior governors are paid up to pound;10,000 a year, said David Sherlock, head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate.
With the increasingly grey line between the public and private sectors, he said it made little sense continuing to expect such high-level skills to be delivered for free.
"Some of our best people would be paid up to pound;150,000 for the same job in private companies," he said.
Mr Sherlock's remarks, at the annual conference of the Association for College Management in Manchester this week, will re-open a controversial debate which New Labour has ducked since coming to power in 1997. Previous Tory administrations resisted the temptation to pay college boards, fearing this would open the floodgates to demands from schools.
But colleges have argued that the complexity of their work and the nature of their business relationships with outside organisations means parallels cannot be drawn with most schools.
Peter Pendle, general secretary of the ACM, said: "There are a lot of good governors out there and the real problem is retaining them beyond their first period."
The problem of recruiting and keeping good governors has been recognised by many other organisations. Chairs of the Connexions youth advisory services are paid, as are non-executive directors of private training companies which compete with colleges for contracts from local learning and skills councils.
Mr Sherlock said: "My own chair is paid an honorarium of pound;3,000-pound;4,000. This is not to question the quality of governors in colleges, but there is a question of the need to give some reward.
"It is no reflection on people who give enormous amounts of time and total commitment but, as people in colleges come to terms with the models of good governance, are they able to get the right kind of professional support that senior managers need?
"We need non-executive, non-voting directors who are paid, more up-to-date and more professional."
Concerns over the increasing problems with recruiting and keeping governors were expressed by many senior managers at the conference. One said: "We ought to be able to take on company directors in retirement. With their skills, they would be a real asset. But they see opportunities here for an often-needed small income in retirement and we are unable to pay."
John Carver, the American guru on college governance who has been in the UK on a speaking tour, warned against using paid governors as a tool to improve quality.
Mr Carver said: "In dealing with paid boards and unpaid boards for over 25 years, I've never found that whether board members are paid or unpaid makes any discernible difference in how well they govern.
"I'm not against paying them. But whether paying brings more qualified people to boards would be affected by how much they are paid. Paying a modicum would not have that effect and paying what their time is really worth is probably beyond what most such organisations could ever afford."
Carver on governance, 36