The Scottish funding council has met college leaders to discuss how to handle "significant failure" in college managements.
Although the council did not say so, the meeting was sparked by severe criticisms of the management at Glasgow Central College of Commerce for its handling of the Jim O'Donovan case, in which the national president of the main lecturers' union was sacked.
An employment tribunal later ruled that the circumstances which led to Mr O'Donovan's dismissal were "utterly trivial" and that the college had made "mountains out of molehills (if there were ever molehills in the first place)".
While the college board has continued to insist that Mr O'Donovan, president of the Further Education Lecturers' Association, was not dismissed for his union activities, the tribunal found that he had made himself such a nuisance over staff reorganisation plans that evidence against him was exaggerated and this led to his dismissal.
It is believed the case has led to the funding council making its move, after a very public undertaking given at an open meeting in October 2002 by Roger McClure, its chief executive. Mr McClure said that if a tribunal criticised a college's procedures in a case before it, the council should intervene.
He urged staff who were concerned at any aspect of the way a college was being run and who felt they could not take their complaints to the board to use the "whistleblowing" procedures. This would also involve the council, although he admitted the role was not one with which it was "comfortable".
Some college principals are not comfortable with it either, believing it to be "micro-managing and making policy on the hoof", as one put it.
The funding council, however, has been careful to say that it would be "supporting" college boards in such situations, neither investigating nor intervening. Its meeting with leaders of the Association of Scottish Colleges was couched in terms of how it would "address incidences of apparent significant failure in a college's governance or high-level management, should they arise".
The council's meeting in July stressed "the need to ensure that there is confidence in college boards of management".
Mr McClure appears determined to take a more hands-on approach to management issues, believing that problems in a few colleges are adversely affecting the way the FE sector is judged, "not least by ministers".
Tom Kelly, chief executive of the ASC, said its starting point is that disputes in colleges have to be resolved internally. "Issues that arise from disputes require to be treated with care since responsibility for employment matters rests with the college," Mr Kelly said.
The funding council has set up a development directorate headed by John Burt, principal of Angus College, to provide positive support for colleges in difficulty.