An ever present need for vigilance

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
College governors have shown a laudable lack of self-interest in shunning payments of honoraria and other rewards.

Indeed, as The TES national survey of governing bodies (opposite) reveals, many would not even wish to draw expenses since, in the words of one chair, "it feels like dipping our hands into the college budget".

A minority of governing bodies did pay chairs and and others in the larger colleges sums of up to Pounds 5,000 a year. Some argued that the duties were as onerous those in hospital trusts.

They were quickly slapped down by Tim Boswell, the Further and Higher Education Minister, and Sir William Stubbs, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.

But there is self-interest and self-interest. The colleges have had their fair share of trouble at managerial level, from the gross financial mismanagement of Coventry Technical College in 1991 to the Derby Wilmorton saga last year in which governors were found not to be acting in the wider public interest.

All governing bodies should be vigilantly policed by an effective clerk and chair who know the rules and make sure that a register of members interests is kept. Professor Michael Shattock, who chaired the FEFC committee of inquiry into Wilmorton Tertiary College,makes this point in the joint TESAssociation for Colleges' Essential Guide for Governors in FE (centre pages) .

And while he insists there is no evidence of replications of the Wilmorton case, there is no room for complacency.

As the Nolan Committee on standards in public life has said, there is a danger of quangos becoming self-perpetuating oligarchies and addressing too narrow a range of interests.

His list of recommendations for quangos should apply equally to FE governing bodies. They may well become the standards. Remember that at the outset, Lord Nolan was given the longer-term brief which extends to all public bodies; this in theory could include further and higher education institutions. If he does not go this far, Sir William certainly will.

In fairness, college governors are acutely aware of the dangers of their boards being self-selecting oligarchies.

To some extent, this is unavoidable, given that colleges need to recruit some people with particular skills. Every chair of governors interviewed spoke of the need to keep selection out of the hands of a "magic circle" of local worthies.

Lord Nolan has set the standard with a simple statement that appointments to quango boards should be made on the basis of merit.

It is rather disturbing, given the views of the chairs of governors that only one in 10 colleges in the surveys had advertised places for governors. Two in the sample were thinking of doing so. This is one way not only of helping break the magic circle but also of testing the willingness of local business people and community members to join the board. There is apparently no difficulty finding people willing to join. But are they the right people and how keen is the public at large to become involved in the work of colleges?

There may be no shortage of governors but a repeated cry from those in post is that there is a serious lack of basic information on their duties, the way colleges are funded and the key political developments in the curriculum area. That is why The TES and AFC have produced the essential guide. It will be followed up - starting next week on the College Management page of TES2 - with a regular focus on issues affecting the work and responsibilities of governors.

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