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Hymn to openness fails to woo masses

An exercise in accountability or an ordeal in obfustication? Ian Nash reports on last week's annual general meeting of the FEFC. Twenty-five members of the public turned up for the first-ever open annual general meeting of the FE (UK) plc, otherwise known as the Further Education Funding Council.

This handful of taxpayers - genuine shareholders - came to witness chief executive Sir William Stubbs and his officials do battle with the hopefully incisive questions put by 300 chairs of college governors.

They could have been forgiven for thinking that a waffle machine had been turned on whenever probing questions of finance were asked - the complexities of which resolutely defy simplification.

For the uninitiated, issues such as "convergence of the average levels of funding" and "the Private Finance Initiative" were not easy to digest. But then, many of the initiated found it tough going.

There was disappointment that only around 25 members of the public volunteered to attend what was after all a landmark event. The FEFC's AGM, held in London's Queen Elizabeth II conference centre last week, was the first such event organised by a public body to be open to the masses - and all in the name of accountability.

The event was remarkably well stage-managed, but this did not prevent some genuine moments of tension as the barbed question or two was fired at the officials such as Terry Melia.

The indefatigable FEFC chief inspector bombarded the audience with statistics from his annual report: inspectors last year visited 129 colleges to inspect 22,000 lessons involving 250,000 students. More than 90 per cent of lessons were average or better.

But one Wolverhampton councillor was not content with good news. David Hawkins wanted to know about the fraud. "I have had the same story from four institutions of students who are not performing and should be failed. But the lecturers are told not to because of the (FEFC) funding arrangement."

Dr Melia said that, of course, he would not condone it. But where were Mr Hawkins' facts? "We have found bad marking, but we found no concerted efforts to defraud or give people qualifications to which they were not entitled. When I say we looked at 250,000 students, we didn't just look at their faces, but at the work they had done, going back over two years."

Probity was on everyone's mind. After all, this was the week when Lord Nolan's inquiry into standards in public life turned the spotlight on colleges. First, governors wanted to know why they could not be compensated for the loss of income arising from the difficult hours devoted to college work.

Second, what was the FEFC doing about the problems colleges had recruiting and retaining good governors? And third, what was it doing about colleges forced into a weak financial position through circumstances beyond their control?

If the questions of recruitment, payment and performance of governors were all linked in the minds of college managers, that was not how the FEFC viewed them.

Regarding payment of governors, Sir Robert Gunn, FEFC chairman, said: "As far as we are concerned, we are not the ones who make the rules. We have to ensure that the wishes of the Secretary of State are fulfilled."

On the question of recruitment, Sir William insisted that the FEFC had not found "any overall pattern" suggesting "that there's a serious problem developing in different parts of the country".

And when it came to the question of financial performance, the governors found themselves in the dock. In a master stroke, FEFC finance director Roger McClure said levels of funding and performance were not related.

The problem, he said, was weak management which was "an indication that the governing body has not always managed a mental shift from the more benign oversight of LEAs to the more active involvement of a college acting as an independent body".

The trouble with open government is that some people simply don't know where to stop. Howard Phelps, chair of Cirencester College, Gloucester, wanted to know why an FEFC report was calling for college clerks to blow the whistle on dodgy governors. Evidence from the private sector showed this to be counterproducti ve.

Unfortunately, that report is not yet published and a mildly embarrassed Sir Robert pointed out that: "A decision has not yet officially been approved by the council."

Too many questions like these and the public might find the AGM openness short-lived. Sir Robert said there would be a second AGM open to the public next year, but "after that, we will be reviewing its value".

However, the taxpayers were able to leave the hall assured that the FEFC was ultra-efficient. Colleges last year achieved an 11 per cent efficiency gain and a 5 per cent increase in student numbers. With the new public spending round looming, the public might like to ask ministers some pertinent questions if colleges fail to get their due reward.

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