The man he chose to introduce to the sector as its very first speaker, at its very first conference, was Sir John Bourne. Sir John is the auditor and comptroller general of the National Audit Office, the watchdog which reports to Parliament on public spending in non-governmental agencies and quangos.
Most people in the hall at the time got the message. We had been entrusted with billions of pounds of public money, but the autonomy promised by the new FEHE act went only as far as the door of the NAO, where the governess had some very nasty medicine for naughty children.
Sir John is an awe-inspiring figure, and by the time his speech was over, despite his wit and charm, the subtext of thumbscrews, racks and other medieval forms of encouragement had been clearly received. The bogeyman had been conjured up before our very eyes and we were afraid.
The trouble with this bogeyman, however, was that it did not fade away with the daylight. Instead of haunting just those terrible moments when we turn out the light and face the darkness inside and out, the NAO now sits through all our waking hours, permitting a whole range of spooks and goblins to torment and plague FE. In its shadow, all sorts of audit are smiled upon, whatever torments they bring. And the top ghoul itself, the NAO, looms ever larger in our lives.
Its website tells you that anyone applying for a job will need to demonstrate the ability to eat babies, whole, and without salt. A willingness to remove the eyelids of people they stumble across staked out under the desert sun is desirable .
The website also documents the considerable service the NAO has performed for the sector. It has produced an increasing number of reports to help us do our job. It all started back in 1990-91 with an innocent enough look at the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. It concluded that little of lasting benefit had been achieved at vast public expense, and that teachers were to blame.
This first taste of blood seemed to satisfy it for a while and not much was heard until it produced Managing to be independent: management and financial control at colleges in the FE sector, which stayed in the top 10 best-seller charts throughout 1994. This huge success gave it grand illusions, and in 1995-96 it produced the classic Management of space, with a copy to NASA, presumably.
England clearly was not enough for the NAO. Its attention turned elsewhere: Managing costs in Scottish FE colleges, subtitled How to take coals to Newcastle, came next. But all this generous advice-giving was not what it seemed. In reality the NAO was stalking its victim, learning its habits, prodding the weak spots, ready to go for the throat. Proving that no corner of the land was safe, Funding, management and governance at Gwent Tertiary College was a scorching bodice-ripper and an instant success in the valleys. It started a string of single-name reports, the sort your college should avoid at all costs. Glasgow Caledonian HE, Swansea Institute of HE, Portsmouth University, Southampton Institute of HE, and with its eyes now red with bloodlust and a desire to kill at any price, it moved in on the one and only single-name report on an English FE institution: Irregularities at Halton College. 1997-98 was its great year, with eight reports.
The more it wrote and advised, the worse things got. The more it helped us manage and control, the more we got into debt and bad company. The harder the Government cut, the louder the watchdog howled and the more the Government cut. Eventually things went quiet and NAO's Mr Hyde became a rather high-minded Dr Jekyll, offering advice on Widening participation in HE (2001) and Improving student performance - an accountants' view (2001).
All this leaves me with three questions. With this attentive beast on the prowl, how come so many chickens got out of the coop and still came home to roost? Why did FE get all the blame when four of the six single-name reports featured HE colleges? And after the success of the audit role at Enron, is Lord Wakeham available for the vacant place on my audit committee?
Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College