A report in Scotland is clear about one thing: boards should have a much bigger say in the way colleges are run. Huw Richards reports.
One chair of governors has compared it to "an elephant belly-dancing" - there has been so much of huffing and puffing with not a lot to show for it. Another interested party is concerned that it will make it more difficult to find new recruits and keep the competent members of governing boards. Whatever angle they are coming from, the people running colleges and their governing bodies face a demanding few months as they prepare their response to the Scottish Further Education Funding Council's review of college management.
The initial reaction has been rather lukewarm. This may be partly because many elements in the review were foreshadowed earlier in the year by an interim report from the consultancy KPMG delivered to a seminar of principals and chairs of governing boards. It may also be because there has been such a long wait for the final report.
It is now six months since the funding council received from KPMG the research on which their conclusions are based. It is four months since the council sent the report to the Scottish Enterprise and Lifelong Learning minister, Henry McLeish.
"Some of us were beginning to wonder what on earth had happened to it," comments one principal. "If it had been delayed any longer it would have lost credibility within the sector."
College heads now have a little over three months in which to prepare their response to the challenge questions accompanying the report and to draw up management action plans as demanded by the funding council.
At Borders College, Bob Murray, the principal, has assigned members of his senior management team to consider different sections of the report, and to draw up the college's response. A management awayday, attended by the college's clerk and its chair of governors, was planned for late last month.
"Simply working through the challenge questions will be demanding," says Mr Murray. "Of course, you could probably come up with glib answers quite rapidly, but doing the job properly will take time and serious thought. Fortunately, we've got two board meetings scheduled before Christmas, but it will be extremely tough for some colleges who have only one. Action plans have to be approved by boards and they also have to get on with other matters - like running the college. Of course, you can call special or emergency meetings, but most board members are extremely busy - fitting an extra meeting in is never easy."
His concern about the mechanics of responding chimes with a more fundamental concern expressed by several interested parties: the growing expectations on governors. One principal said that the clear message from the funding council to chairs was to "get into the colleges and find out what your principal is up to. A watching brief will no longer be adequate - SFEFC wants them to be much more hands-on."
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, is anxious that too many demands are not made of governors. He told TES Scotland "Members of college boards of management are unpaid volunteers and mustn't be treated as if they are salaried executive directors," he says.
Jim Ross, chief consultant to the Scottish Further Education Unit and chair of the board of Perth College, echoes his worries: "My fear is that this will increase our difficulties in the recruitment and retention of effective board members." He estimates that his own duties take about two days per month: "I have always taken the view that the job should be a voluntary form of public service. But if much more is expected of governors we will start to stretch the issue."
He described the challenge questions, being considered by a sub-committee at Perth, as: "a useful checklist, but not much more".
Bob Murray points to similar concerns at Borders College: "Committees in this region draw from a comparatively small group of people - you tend to find the same people on most bodies. I have no objection to the principle that governors should pursue an active role in colleges - I don't think you'd find anyone who could object. But I do wonder how far placing further burdens on the same group of people is going to have the desired practical effect."
While governance is a key issue, the report is also concerned with the day to day running of colleges.
Graham Clark, principal of Inverness College, expects the report to make very little difference to everyday managerial existence and functions in his institution: "Considering how long the report has taken and how much money was spent on it, the outcome is pretty unimpressive. It will make very little difference - my chair has compared it to 'an elephant belly-dancing': there has been a lot of effort for not much return.
"It is summed up by the comment that 'All good practice will not be found in every college'. Of course it isn't. If it were, it would not be good practice, but average practice. It has not told us a great deal we did not know already. The challenge questions are exactly the sort of questions principals are asking themselves all the time."
Mr Clark was unimpressed by the reported comment of the minister, Henry McLeish, that he was "taken aback" that so much had to be done to improve management in colleges: "He has to say that when the report was commissioned by a minister from his own party and has cost so much money. The reality is that, if there is a pleasing element in the report, it is that it shows there is very little wrong with the way colleges are run in Scotland."
Few colleges doubt that the tighter managerial regimes, backed by more performance indicators and statistics, will lead to a greater volume of paper work and information-gathering. Gordon Dargie, principal of Shetland College, says: "Some well-designed software would be able to take care of quite of a lot of what is being asked for."
He certainly hopes so, mindful of the pressures increased reporting and information-supplying requirements place on small colleges. Shetland is undergoing its own internal management review as it contemplates the shift from its status as a local authority-controlled college to becoming a local trust.
Mr Dargie reports to the economic development committee of Shetland Island council rather than to a conventional governing body. The college has 170 full-time and 290 part-time students, an annual budget of around pound;2 million, of which pound;1.3m comes from the Scottish funding council. It has a commensurately small administration.
"Other than myself there are two people in the next room," says Mr Dargie. "We certainly don't want to duck issues of accountability or best practice, but with all the demands on us we are beginning to feel rather outnumbered."
He suggests that the funding council might take a look at its own managerial procedures: "It would certainly be worth their performing an audit on the pressures they are creating for college managers. I am certainly not suggesting that the old Scottish Office system was perfect, far from it. But the SFEFC might like to take a hard look at the amount of paper their different departments pump out."
The bulk of criticism focused on the practicalities rather than the underlying principles of the report. Murray, whose college was one of the 12 visited during the review, thinks the recommendations are over-generalised. "I broadly welcome the report, but feel that it would have been much more useful if it had been more specific about the college.
"This was in effect an audit, and one of the things you want to learn from audits is where you might tighten up. Instead, we have rather generalised advice about the sector as a whole. While it is worth knowing that there is good practice around the sector, this is much less useful than recommendations about what we might do."
Jim Ross at Perth also felt that more specific elements were lacking: "I had hoped that the report might come up with specific examples of good practice which other colleges could follow, but it is rather light on this."
Marian Healy, further and higher education officer for the Educational Institute of Scotland, the largest lecturers' union, said she did not wish to comment in advance of consultation.