Former Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke was forthright as always on the intentions of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act: colleges would have freedom and their survival depend on their responses to market forces.
Because conflict between government and local authorities obscured the debate, the issue of accountability received scant consideration. No thought was given to what accountability to market forces was likely to mean in practice. What, for example, would it mean where the majority of students were in no position to pay other than nominal tuition fees?
It was obvious before the Wilmorton saga hit the headlines that the market forces notion had little relevance to the question of the accountability of quango members. Regulations governing corporations are unambiguous; once established (by the Secretary of State) they are self-perpetuating and responsible to nobody but themselves.
This is the context of the advice from, for example, the Department for Education and the Further Education Funding Council. The emphasis is on establishing a code of good practice for the guidance of members. To its credit, the FEFC has been more sensitive than other quangos to the dangers of abuse in a situation where accountability is largely a voluntary matter. In a recent circular, which could be a useful basis for discussion for some corporations, the council describes how it intends to regulate its own affairs.
Given that there will be no legislation to address the issue of accountability in the foreseeable future (note the recent comments of Bryan Davies, Labour's FE spokesperson), what should corporations do? Following the FEFC's example could undoubtedly result in significant improvement for some corporations and it is the minimum that should be demanded. But the question of who is in a position to make demands is, again, a reminder that members have to volunteer to be accountable.
It is a "who confesses the Pope?" type question. There are certain legal implications which have to be recognised, but a corporation can agree to an arbitration process to use when difficulties and disputes arise. This is a step towards openness but there is no escaping the fact that, legally, quangos retain responsibility for all decisions relating to their spheres of control.
Attempting to shift responsibility to an arbiter would cut little ice with the Public Accounts Committee if a decision had damaging financial consequences.
Because articles of incorporation preclude members acting in representative capacities, introducing elements of democracy is extremely difficult. Advisory committees usually result in an extension of bureaucracy and become part of the system. For this reason they have no appeal to members of the community who believe the issue is that the system is failing them. Community leaders who are perceived as becoming part of the system often lose credibility with their constituents.
It is the habit of well-meaning bureaucrats to create organisations in their own image when they seek to involve members of the community in projects. Genuine community involvement occurs only when the bureaucracy (in this case the corporation) is prepared to enter equal partnerships with existing community groups, without any attempt to take them over. Successful partnerships depend very largely on colleges employing staff who are accepted as belonging to the communities involved. To take an obvious example, colleges without Asian staff are unlikely to be able to establish successful partnerships with Asian communities.
Pressure for growth in the further education sector is encouraging greater interest in reaching out to people who have been neglected by traditional education and training. It is already evident that outreach work with non-traditional students raises issues about the management and organisation of further education and, even more important, the relevance of the existing curriculum to education and training needs.
Experience in the community with people previously excluded from education and training brings into focus the essence of the argument about accountability and democracy. The crucial issue is that there can be no genuine education without democracy and democratic accountability. And without education, as opposed to the narrow vocationalism currently on offer, there is no prospect that the people of this country will be able to acquire the training necessary to regenerate the economy.
The lack of accountability is currently a matter of public concern because it is associated with sleaze and corruption. No less important is the fact that if members of corporations and colleges are not accountable to the public they are appointed to serve they cannot provide an adequate education and training service.
Keith Wymer is principal of Bilston Community College