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If it ain't broke

Further education principals have sent a "hands-off" message to the group currently examining the way they run their colleges.

The inquiry, part of the Scottish Executive's review of the future of colleges, is looking specifically at "accountability and governance", an ongoing concern following a series of management and financial failures which have dogged FE since incorporation.

But, it has now emerged in papers lodged on the review's website, principals believe a line should be drawn under those episodes because the system is now working. Sue Pinder of West Lothian College, who chairs the principals' forum, urged "a light touch" and said "nothing new and radical (was) required".

Any improvements, Ms Pinder suggested, could be brought about by internal management action, consistent monitoring, and benchmarking against local government and businesses.

A typically more robust view came from Rae Angus, principal of Aberdeen College, who said the very existence of such an inquiry implied "a deficit model" and he asked: "Why fix something which is not necessarily broken?"

He felt that some of the impetus behind the doubts about the way colleges are held accountable and governed are politically inspired, particularly by MSPs who have "a poor perception about the management and governance of colleges". He said the sector needed to be promoted among parliamentarians.

The Aberdeen principal agreed that "a degree of oversight and control" of colleges was necessary, but they also had to have flexibility to respond to local needs.

Robert Sinclair, principal of Banff and Buchan College, said the sector had been "reviewed out".

Iain Ovens, principal of Dundee College, pointed out that "colleges already present a wealth of information to the funding council, the executive and the parliament, and they should not suddenly be finding themselves in difficulty".

Several principals underlined the importance of spreading best management practice around the sector. They pointed to the need for a better mix of skills and experience on college boards of management. Indeed, a number felt the term "board of management" did not describe their functions adequately and that "board of governors" would be more appropriate.

A closer look at the composition, functioning and training of college board members is one of the recommendations of the parliamentary audit committee, following a report from the Auditor General for Scotland. This will form part of the FE review, as will consideration of how colleges facing "severe difficulty" could be assisted.

Of the 14 principals who took part in this section of the review, only one did not make any observations about accountability and governance - Bill Wardle, presently on sick leave from his post at James Watt College after becoming engulfed in controversy over staff restructuring plans.

Meanwhile, the working group on accountability and governance has learned that there will be a crucial investigation held between June next year and March 2009 by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. This will clarify whether colleges are sufficiently independent of ministers to keep their charitable status, regarded as critical by the colleges.

The tax exemptions which charitable status generates are worth around pound;15 million a year to the colleges. But any organisation will fail the charities test if the regulator rules that its constitution "expressly permits Scottish ministers or a minister of the crown to direct or otherwise control its activities".

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