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Is it time to pay our governors?

There is a shortage of high-calibre people to fill boards, but attracting them with salaries could hit college budgets, argues John Graystone.

A survey by College Manager in February, which revealed difficulties in attracting high-calibre governors, has also helped formulate a new law of governance: the greater the regulation and scrutiny, the tougher it is to find good governors.

There are four broad overlapping approaches to membership. First, governing bodies may be directly elected, as in many community colleges in the United States. This sharpens accountability to communities but requires a clear definition of constituency boundaries and risks the intrusion of party politics. There have been concerns in the US about the quality of elected trustees, some seeking election as a beginning or end of a political career or to serve a particular interest group. The fear is that they may not see the interests of the college as paramount.

Second, members may be directly appointed by the government (in the Republic of Ireland) or by the state or provincial governor (in Canada and some US states). The decision, taken out of the hands of the community and the board, is straightforward, with little pretence of accountability. The obvious risk is the appointment of political friends. The new governor of Florida, brother of George W Bush, replaced almost all college trustees with his own appointees, regardless of ability.

The third model, that of governors appointed on the basis of merit, requires agreement by each governing body on the relevant experience and expertise and an open and rigorous selection procedure to ensure the right people are appointed. The Cadbury Report in the early 1990s reinforced the point that the golf club and the old school tie are not the ideal recruiting grounds for new governors. Accountability is weak.

Fourth, governing bodies are now made up of people from business, local authorities, the local community, staff and students, with some appointed on the basis of particular skills. This is the community stakeholder model. Accountability is enhanced, a variety of views are heard and decisions reflect the interests of the community. The downside is ensuring a corporate approach, persuading governors with diverse views to put the interests of the college first, and appointing governors with sufficient understanding of the complexities of governance.

We need to consider other parts of the public sector. National Halth Service trusts have executive directors, equivalent to college senior managers, and paid non-executive directors. The former are centrally involved in decisions on strategy and finance, reducing the risk of rivarly between officers and members. However, the boundaries between governance and management may become blurred and executive directors may become a formidable block, perhaps undermining the contribution of the non-executive directors.

The governance of colleges has traditionally been underpinned by the important principle of civic duty in which individuals give up their free time to serve unpaid on public bodies. The increasing responsibilities of governing bodies and the growing complexity demand high levels of knowledge.

For the Government to agree to paying all 7,500 governors in England and Wales would be highly-controversial. Why not also pay the governors of the 25,000 schools and the 130 or so higher education institutions? Should governors of small colleges receive less remuneration? Perhaps payment could be restricted to those taking on responsibility for chairing key committees. Money might also change governance-management relationships.

Paying pound;2,000 a year to all governors in England and Wales would cost pound;15 million. A supplement of pound;2,000 a year for posts of responsibility (the chairs of the board and the audit committee) would total around pound;2 million. This money would undoubtedly be top-sliced from college budgets. Governors, many of whom do not claim expenses, may prefer the money to go to learners.

A debate is required about the membership of governing bodies and the way they should conduct their business. With three reforms in membership since 1989, the next might be expected by 2004. Governing bodies are under-researched, despite the government rhetoric. They are the secret garden of education. We need answers to important questions. How can a board appointed on merit become truly accountable? How can a governing body comprising community stakehave sufficient expertise to tackle the challenges of governing complex organisations? What effect would the payment of governors and the introduction of executive governors have on governance-management relations?

There is no perfect model of governance but we require boards that genuinely add value and help colleges face the challenges of the 21st century.

John Graystone is the regional director of the Association of Colleges for the South-West

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