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Clear the boards for action

All is clearly not well with the state of college governance. Some may still point to the tremendous contribution so many people are making on the boards of our colleges, and will say that we do not want to go back to the old ways.

I would agree that the commitment shown by the new boards has been nothing but impressive. The issue, however, is the state of governance, not the state of governors.

College governors have enormous responsibilities thrust upon them, but for the most part they are only just becoming aware of their potential liabilities. Worse, no one is clear about the legal demarcation lines. Until either Parliament or the courts make these clear, governors are in a judicial limbo. Meanwhile, bemused governors watch as codes of ethics proliferate almost as inexorably as the number of meetings.

Although some colleges make commendable efforts, overall the learning opportunities for governors are few. For most, training comes "on the job". Would industry tolerate this? Of course not. They would want to recruit able people as do the colleges, but they would train them, nurture them and spend on development in preparing them for the boardroom.

Within this uncertainty, the relationship between governors and chief executives is slowly being defined and redefined in every corporate college. Distinctions between policy and administration must exercise the collective synapses of every corporate body, as must the paradox of trying to make the chief executive accountable to an arguably unaccountable board which is dependent on that very chief executive for all information and knowledge.

Relationships are made more strained by the funding regime under which colleges operate. Many chief executives are finding that to calculate an accurate and timely out-turn forecast appears to display all the properties of a rubber ball bouncing through a hall of mirrors. Software and systems have yet to catch up with the complexity of a financial regime of core funding, marginal units, and clawback. In an age when senior industrial figures apparently receive upwards of Pounds 50,000 a year for spending a day and half a month advising a bank on the salary of its senior executives, the refusal to remunerate governors seems niggardly.

Worse, this policy clearly limits the supply of able people. Not everyone can afford to give up even a day and a half a month. Surely some of this Pounds 50 million saving (calculated on the above figures) can be reinvested to ensure equal opportunities and skills availability?

Let us be blunt. Governors are generally recruited on the old boy network. There is at present no other structure. Second, the very name "governor" is redolent of a Billy Bunter world long gone. The name fails to convey the range of responsibilities and is hardly apt.

What is needed is a college board "clearing house" system. Interested potential college directors and companies could come to the clearing house and gain an understanding of the job before they joined a corporation. Boards could then match the skills of the team members required to the pool of talent available. There could be a process of deciding whether this was the right person or the right college where either side could walk away with dignity.

All this would take but a little government cash and does not require the invention of new organisations. The LASER Advisory Council (which has already been active in organising training events for corporate members) is ready to take on such a role.

The sector has been set up with a pace and speed which beggars belief, and that is to be credit of the Government, the FEFC, and college staff. If the opprobrium of present college directors and future historians is to be avoided, there are urgent tasks to be undertaken with college boards. That same alacrity of administrative purpose is required to define the boundaries of legal responsibility, and to create a system which encourages the totality of our polity to become involved, not just a small band from a particular stratum, and if that means finding some cash, so be it.

The most urgent reform is that of establishing a properly functioning clearing house that offers to all a rigorous development programme. This is a measure that can be put into effect quickly. Of itself, it will not solve all the problems described here, but it will provide a focus through which the necessary thinking can take place as a precursor for developing the boards of the future. This represents a small and practical step, but also a big leap forward.

Laurie South is the chief executive of the London and South East Regional Advisory Council (LASER)

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