The Government has announced a detailed review of college governance, provoking the wrath of corporation chairs and principals.
Civil servants announced the review in a letter to chairs of governors earlier this month, giving them less than three weeks to respond to the inquiry's first stage.
In the letter, the Department for Education and Skills says there is a need "to ensure that the current governance arrangements are fit to deal with the current challenge facing the sector and ensure that individual corporations are able to properly reflect their local community and its needs".
The review would consider "all aspects of governance", including the role of governors in supporting regulations required by Parliament, the size and composition of corporations, and the importance of the split between the "strategic" role of the corporation and "operational" role of college management.
Chairs of governors have accused the department of being "patronising" and "heavy-handed" in its approach. After a barrage of complaints from its members, the Association of Colleges demanded clarification and will meet officials to find out their intentions next Monday.
Ivor Jones, AoC director of employment policy, said "We have written to the department expressing our concern about the very short notice and response time given to colleges."
Senior civil servants moved to reassure college leaders earlier this week.
John Rockett, former president of the Association for College Management, said: "They say they think governors are an under-utilised resource and should play a more active part.
"I tend to believe them, but we have a history of the department wanting one thing and quite the opposite happening."
A more formal consultation document is expected next month and the DfES aims to complete a full review by April 2004.
Richard Watt, chair of governors at Guildford college, said: "There is a need for a big debate. I do not think we have got the model of governance right, but the Government is asking us to do too much with too little resource."