Crack the code

4th November 2011 at 00:00

A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and a tornado devastates Texas - that's the classic formulation of chaos theory, a discipline that increasingly seems to explain much of what goes on in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). In this case, the butterfly is the Office for National Statistics, which whimsically decided last year that colleges, previously regarded as independent bodies, were in fact part of the public sector for accounting purposes. The tornado is BIS tearing up accountability mechanisms for colleges, which are already fragile enough.

Proposals to abolish the requirement for colleges to have student and staff governors were put on hold at the last moment this week, but they never should have been made. They were a panicked response to the statisticians' decision. The Department wants to scrap statutory obligations so it can convince the number crunchers that colleges are independent of Government and avoid the impossible task of absorbing their finances into the national accounts.

Officials and ministers promised to think again about staff and student governors after an outcry from the National Union of Students and the University and College Union (UCU). As they do, they should consider how effective the current regulations are at making colleges transparent and accountable. While colleges are good at providing information to their quango overlords, in terms of their transparency to the public and the communities they serve, they are often awful.

A typical college corporation holds its meetings in private - as is its right - and then fails in its legal obligation to publish its minutes. A snapshot survey of a dozen colleges chosen at random showed that only five were up to date with their minutes. The worst offenders had not published any account of their decision-making since February 2009. (Praise is due to North Warwickshire and Hinckley College, whose website claims it has already published the minutes of its audit committee meeting, even though it takes place next month.)

This lax approach to transparency is one reason why college corporations need independent minds to represent the interests of students and staff. UCU points to Barnsley College, where only the intervention of lecturer David Gibson uncovered a fraud of nearly #163;1 million in the 1990s, as an example of why oversight by staff and student representatives is necessary.

A voluntary code, as BIS has suggested, is not enough: if colleges already feel able to neglect their legal requirements to publish minutes, a voluntary code will have even less effect on them. At a time when the Skills Funding Agency is unable or unwilling to monitor colleges closely and intervene often - partly out of principle and partly because of its dwindling staff numbers - the case for staff and student representation is stronger than ever. They should be guaranteed their place at the table.


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