Do not take out my college's appendix

15th November 2002 at 00:00
A Corporation is a lovesome thing, Godwot. So it is about time they got some attention and praise. They have, after all, been running colleges for 10 years since "incorporation".

In return, all they have received from the educational establishment are fancy booklets telling them how to do their job better; exhortations to keep the principal in order; and a ticking off from auditors, and others who should know better, about the quality of their sub-committees' terms of reference.

So this article attempts to redress the balance a bit. It would help if I could find a concise way of saying what a corporation does. A good analogy usually helps in these situations, I find. You know the sort of thing: "A good corporation is the backbone of a college", but a little less cliched. So I have been rather messily rummaging around other internal organs in search of a decent (or indecent) simile. "Pancreas" was my first thought, as you can imagine. A corporation is a college's pancreas, because it has a rather unprepossessing name, no one knows where to locate it, what it does, or what would happen if it were removed. While this may be true, it is hardly the ringing endorsement I want.

"Stomach" then. Given all the indigestible rubbish a corporation has to swallow it seemed apt; but I soon realised that the end product of the digestive process was hardly flattering to the outcomes of corporation business, if you will pardon the scatology.

"Heart" is obvious but too emotional for the phlegmatic nature of most members; "legs", because the college could not run without them, is too unromantic and a lousy pun to boot. "Kidney" or "liver" both suggest a useful cleansing filter, but kidney is too comic and the liver much more susceptible to alcohol than the average corporation stalwart. Gall bladder, intestines, spleen and anything with "gland" after it went the way of all flesh, as it were. In the end I was left with "knees", which are appropriately flexible but sadly too often bent to be really suitable, and "lungs". So, "lungs" it has to be, and very fitting too.

Corporations are the lungs of a college. They bring a breath of fresh air from the outside world, they inspire (geddit?), oxygenate stale procedures and, unobtrusively, regulate the essential processes which support college life. Next stop, Pseuds' Corner! Occasionally, too, they are capable of a sharp intake of breath when exposed to unexpected news and can deflate executive windbags if needed.

Like lungs, they have a strong ribcage of legislation to protect them from attack. And I fear it is much needed at the moment. Predictably, corporations, a leftover from the previous regime, are proving something of a nuisance to enthusiastic learning and skills planners, keen to get on with the task of knocking a discredited FE system into the shape ministers want.

So, slowly but ineluctably, the functions of the corporation are being transferred elsewhere. Corporations used to be responsible for the "educational character" of their college. Now the LSC has the power to plan who we enrol and what we teach them. Governors used to be responsible for quality; now the LSC is, and the provider performance review is its way of keeping us up to the mark. Governors will get a copy of their report, I expect.

Governors once employed their own auditors; now the LSC chooses who pokes around our student record systems. It was governors who once decided how the college should develop, now the LSC demands and approves a development plan. It cannot be long before someone decides that corporations are in fact the college's appendix: redundant, troublesome and best removed.

Now, you might think this is no bad thing. The LSCs were invented to co-ordinate, plan and drive up quality and they cannot do that if other bodies have the same powers and duties but different priorities and interests.

But we need to be very careful. The LSC and its local arms have powers Saddam Hussein might envy. This is fine as long as they are staffed, as they now are, by reasonable people looking to work with colleges. But that may change, and there are others in even higher places who are already frustrated at the lack of progress in public service reform.

Sweeping powers and frustrated ambition are a dangerous combination. Currently, the only check to their use, and abuse, is the independence of college corporations. We should be on our guard against further erosion of their responsibilities or suggestions to replace them.

In short, appendix, lung or brain, the corporation is the sovereign organ in the college body. Beware the Government's transplant surgeons.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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