All you need is dosh and trust

25th September 1998 at 01:00
For gardeners it's swallows coming and going, for shoppers it's the intervals between one closing down sale and the next, but for educators the change of the seasons is marked by the varying thickness of the TES.

Now that those dreary weeks are over when FE Focus has too few pages to wrap a decent fish supper, it is a good time to consider what might have found more space in a more ample edition.

The Further Education Funding Council has not had a good summer. The purpose of a funding council is to fund, to hand over the dosh. They should do so fast, fairly, and for the purpose which the Government on behalf of the tax-payers intended it. I might add that the distribution of the money should be done as cheaply as possible, not in a way which requires colleges to spend time and money on tracking down and securing their rations.

To help them to do all this the FEFC has its own inspectors and auditors. In addition, every college has had to appoint internal and external auditors. As if that was not enough we now have regional offices of the FEFC with increased powers and responsibilities, but no increase in accountability to moderate their formidable wielding of patronage.

All systems work on a combination of trust and control: is it possible that the FEFC has misjudged that balance? Where is the evidence, from private or public sectors, that more control and less trust gives to those being controlled a greater sense of responsibility and a bankable commitment to probity?

The troubling murmur, which has been growing louder over the summer, is that the heavy-breathing controllers have fallen down on the job. Cases are being quoted of colleges which have continued to receive funds from the FEFC to which they were not entitled. Seriously defective record-keeping is what's being said. If that is so, the FEFC must have handed over the dough in ignorance of the facts, or despite knowledge of them. If it was the first, the auditors andor the regional office concerned have got some tricky questions to answer; if it was the second, somebody inside the FEFC should be feeling twitchy. Either way there is more than a whiff of stinking fish.

It may be, of course, that the rumours are plain wrong and that the control mechanisms work perfectly well. But if the FEFC is confident that it knows what's going on and can deal with it, why, while protesting loudly that it doesn't want them, is it seeking new powers to intervene in the governance of colleges, even to the extent of inserting its own board members? If it ain't broke, don't bother to fix it, but if it is, for Gawd's sake find the real fracture.

If some of the larger desks at the FEFC bunker in Coventry were empty this summer (nothing wrong with holidays, let's have more of them), the usual incumbents might have missed the collective howl of rage which went up when the FEFC offered colleges another chance to lose money. This was a bumper wheeze which encouraged colleges to bid for funds to support childcare.

The snag was that the most you could get was less than the likely cost in time, tears and trouble jumping through the flaming partnership hoops which were the key requirement for approval.

Add to this a noticeable change in the tone of communications from the council and its staff to a more peevish and surly style and you begin to wonder whether they have lost a bit of the plot. And, incidentally, what progress can they report towards recognition as an Investor in People or a recipient of the Charter Mark? Get either award and people start to believe that you have an organisation which cares about people. Getting both confirms the point.

There has been the odd lighter moment. Who could fail to be entertained by the goings-on in Birmingham, scene of a merger between two august colleges? The newly-formed single institution had, at the last count: one chief executive, one principal: and two presidents. Four people with a title which proclaims that they are the cock of the walk. On whose desk does the buck stop? In whose kitchen is the heat greatest? Which sanctum is the innermost?

Another recently merged college has already come up with "provost" to describe a big cheese in the new structure. Would-be merging couples need not worry. There are plenty of good titles left in the Thesaurus. How about capo di capo; the Fuehrer; or the Mekon?

Michael Austen is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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