Business isn't bad for bodies;FE Focus;Debate;Opinion

8th May 1998 at 01:00
Reform has reached FE governors. John Graystone argues that reducing business representation is Labour's way of boosting the community voice

However, Ken Ruddiman reckons that it is unfair to accuse people from the world of commerce of being insensitive to individual needs

Colleges are being consulted by the Government on reforms aimed at increasing the number of students from minority groups. Ministers are also proposing major changes in the way college governing bodies are structured to make us more publicly accountable. It is widely assumed, in Government circles, that by improving accountability the proposals to widen participation - spelled out in the recent report from Baroness Helena Kennedy - will follow automatically.

Of course colleges must reflect the needs of the communities they serve, but simply adjusting the membership of governing bodies may not be either the best or the fastest way of achieving this.

Other factors impinge. First, there is the the Further Education Funding Council's decision to "converge" spending - driving everyone to an average level - with no fundamental changes to the funding regime. Second, there is the exhortation from ministers for colleges to amalgamate or merge - a process which, in reality, will rationalise provision.

At Sheffield College, notwithstanding incorporation, we have resolutely attempted to address the "democratic deficit" - two LEA governors; two co-opted, two staff, one student, one principal governor and so on. I would not argue that this makes us more accountable to our community in any formal sense. The design of governing bodies was intended to give not a coherent representation but a comprehensive portfolio of skills to help new corporations face a plethora of challenges.

The catalogue of skills - brought to the table by the business governors - also offers us free consultancy for college management, thus the property governor advises the college estates committee, the technology governor advises the IT committee and, of course, the legal governor keeps us right on our franchise committee with all its dealings with partner providers. Imagine the cost to the college were this consultancy withdrawn.

Mergers are now being encouraged. In 1993, we merged six colleges. Before that, each had 20 governors, so a team of 120 in total served our catchment area. Now with one college we have 20 with the option of reducing to 12. Improving accountability?

Convergence is on course for the year 2000. Is adequacy and sufficiency in our communities our primary goal? No, that is the responsibility of the funding council. Our primary goal is convergence. Even if that means destroying the very infrastructure which makes us accountable to our communities.

So far, we have been forced to reduce our provision in the communities, cut out classes of 12 students and below, require students to travel at their own expense, raise fees, reduce the number of creches, abandon canteen provisions and reduce the teaching force by 200. In brief, we have had to narrow participation, reduce access and take actions which make us less rather than more accountable.

This will continue as we reach convergence. It will continue to be easier and cheaper to give two qualifications to a white, middle-class, fee-paying male in employment, rather than one each to two others in different circumstances.

There is also an implication that a governing body with a predominance of business people will be less than sensitive to individual needs and the needs of the community. Yet, these are the same governors who, daily in business, are there to satisfy a demand.

Business governors are well aware of their social responsibilities. All they make is the not unreasonable request that first we earn the money before we spend it, and that growth is not paid for by overdraft or promisory note.

It may be that the composition of governing bodies needs to be looked at again, but let us hope that such a review will not return us to the position where they were extensions of the council chamber, and business governors despaired of the sparring between politicians and community groups.

We must build in to the procedures for the distribution of funds processes which allow our communities to express their legitimate demands, and for governing bodies to justify their priorities. If we wish this to be done speedily, it will not be easy.

Ken Ruddiman is principal of Sheffield College

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