Funders take a snip at red tape

THE first tentative steps have been taken to reduce red tape in colleges. But the Scottish Further Education Funding Council admits it is only a first step and further action will be required.

The council will in future match credits from the inspection process of HMI with those of the Scottish Quality Management System (SQMS), which establishes 10 standards. The new arrangement covers three of those areas - marketing and customer care, guidance services and programme design. Credit transfer agreements for another two SQMS standards are promised by the end of the year.

Roger McClure, chief executive of the funding council, said: "When we carried out our consultation with colleges on quality assurance, one of the things they asked us to do was to streamline, where possible, the number of audits that busy colleges have to undergo."

He pledged: "We will work to reduce the burden still further."

But Mike Webster, principal of Perth College, who remembers the sense of liberation when colleges were removed from local authority control, argues that they now have little more freedom of manoeuvre than before 1992.

Bureaucracy certainly has a "multiplier effect", according to Andrew Haddon, head of finance at Borders College. This is generated by a multiplicity of agencies, each with its own projects, priorities and demands for information. "None of the demands are unreasonable looked at from the centre, but by the time they reach staff in the colleges, the pressures they create can be enormous," Mr Haddon says.

The issue has not yet achieved the salience it has in England and Wales. One reason is that the funding council is still a comparative newcomer, dating back only to 1999. It acknowledges that mapping and measuring exercises carried out in its early days did create a burden, but, Maureen Smith, director of communications, says: "We believe colleges can see the benefit from this in terms of improved working methods."

Dan Wood, depute principal of Inverness College, broadly agrees: "There does seem to be an increase in the amount of paper work, but I don't find anything they ask for unreasonable, the quality of what they put out is reasonably good and it is possible to speak to people if you have got a concern."

Audit appears to be the worst area. Sue Pinder, principal of West Lothian College, says: "There are absurd amounts of duplication." Mr Haddon reckons that there is an auditor somewhere in Borders College on about 100 days per year. "Everyone - HMI, SQMS, Investors in People, the local authority, the Auditor General for Scotland, local enterprise companies and just about anyone else you can think of - has their own audit and their own demands."

The multiplier effect is perhaps best illustrated by the labyrinth around student funding. Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, had the complications brought home when he was unable to work out his son's entitlements. Gordon Dargie, principal at Shetland College, points to hardship funds as a particularly exasperating area. "We used to deal with one fund. Now there are four - two each for further education and higher education, and each needing its own accounting."

Student funding epitomises what Mr Kelly calls the "biscuit tin syndrome". The funding process uses 10 routes apart from recurrent grant, and their share of the pot has been going up.

But Ms Smith points out: "Sometimes money is given to us during the course of the year which has been earmarked by government for specific purposes."

Mr Haddon says: "Teaching staff are under increased pressure thanks to assessment systems. To take one example, the National Certificate in Carpentry is 100 per cent assessed, placing a huge burden on teaching staff."

Colleges do not deny the need for accountability, Mr Webster says. "Colleges are bureaucratic institutions, generating a fair volume of paper on their own account."

But the funding council's joint secretariat with the higher education funding council does not always simplify matters. "It's the same people, but they talk on different days about different things," Mr Dargie says.

ORDEAL BY AUDIT

Kilmarnock College did not after all break a Scottish record in 2001-2. But it has no complaints. Eighteen audits, one short of the record held by Paisley's Reid Kerr College, was more than enough.

Mick Roebuck, the principal, recalls that HMI had 16 people in for a week for the subject review, and another half dozen for the college review, picking up on what was found.

Just to keep the college on its toes, the time in between the two visitations was occupied by a Scottish Quality Management System audit of a company run by the college's centre for enterprise.

Mr Roebuck accepts the need for accountability and audit, but is exasperated by the lack of communication. "They don't seem to talk to each other. So you get several bodies asking for much the same information, and periods like this year when audits come one on top of another."

He would also like key managers to be doing the jobs for which they were appointed. "Our curriculum manager's job is to be proactive and innovative, planning new provision and different ways of meeting the needs of our community. Instead he has spent two months doing nothing but responding to auditors."

At least 2002-3 promises to be quieter.

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