It's time to rethink college governance

Governors have been marginalised, with the result that much talent is being squandered, say Ian James and Ron Hill.

Little has been written or said recently about college governors. Some people closely involved in college governance say they have become sidelined in recent years. Others suggest there is now no clear role for governing bodies. Many question what they should be doing and how they can add value to the college.

A governing body's role falls under three broad headings: strategy, quality improvement (and the monitoring of performance) and compliance with rules and regulations. What priority should governors give to these responsibilities? Clues about the relative importance of each can be found in the approach taken by the various outside agencies which inspect and audit colleges.

In the heady days following incorporation in 1993, college governance was inspected separately. Later, it was included alongside management. Now it forms a small part of leadership and management. Governance as a topic in its own right has been abandoned and conclusions about its effectiveness are, rightly or wrongly, drawn from the overall performance of the college.

The Learning and Skills Council and internal auditors regularly run the rule over college governance, but only in a "box ticking" way. The council rolls governance and financial management into one review, as if the two were the same. Little is said about the board's capacity to improve the college; and many a clerk has been frustrated by having the grade for governance dragged down by a college's poor financial position.

So, the way governance is examined suggests a heavy emphasis on compliance, some emphasis on quality improvement and performance monitoring and little on the board's ability to think and plan strategically.

However, if this is how a college board prioritises its activities, it is in danger of becoming oblivious to the external environment. That would be a bit like examining the track without seeing the train coming.

Yet, governors with this narrow perspective can satisfy themselves that they have fulfilled their responsibilities and go home content. More self-critical boards go away frustrated and questioning why they bother to do the job.

Let's face it, there are lots of talented people out there on governing bodies and the sector needs to harness their collective expertise and put it to better use.

Governors must retain their basic watchdog brief to ensure compliance with rules and regulations. They must also be vigilant in monitoring performance and challenging college management to bring about quality improvements where provision is sub-standard. But these functions can be dealt with by board committees.

The main focus of the board should be on strategy. That means getting to grips with the needs of students and employers, funding changes and all the other initiatives and "flavours of the month" from government and the LSC.

So, what practical steps can a board take to shift the emphasis?

It has been said that if you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. And this applies to the way college boards operate.

It is time for a rethink, to lift governors' heads out of the mire of detail concerning compliance of rules to a higher plane of strategic positioning and forward planning.

This does not mean simply reordering current business. There has to be a fundamental shift in the minds of senior managers and governors as to what issues appear on board agendas and how much time is spent on strategy.

Large amounts of cash are likely to shift from college budgets into a competitive scenario by 2015. Colleges must plan now to deal with these changes. A refreshed model of governance may help to reduce the number of colleges that could get into difficulty.

Ian James and Ron Hill are practising clerks in further education colleges.

They provide support to governors, clerks and principals


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