MORAY COLLEGE has become the first Scottish further education institution to suspend its principal following a financial investigation.
In a move unprecedented in Scotland since further education colleges became independent in 1992, Dr Robert Chalmers has been ordered to stay away from his office pending the outcome of disciplinary proceedings against him. The briefest of statements simply confirmed that decision by the college board and described it as "a precautionary step".
The college would not expand on its statement and neither would Ian Kerr, chairman of the board of management and a former depute director of education in Grampian Region. The issues were too complex and too sensitive, Mr Kerr said.
Unconfirmed reports suggested Dr Chalmers, aged 53, may face 22 charges, with complaints from staff ranging from nepotism to misuse of equipment and funds.
The college board acted following an investigation by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. The funding council took over the inquiry from the former Scottish Office which received complaints from staff in August 1998 and called in the National Audit Office.
The funding council confirmed the investigation was into "alleged misuse of public funds at the college" and is ongoing. The findings will go before the next council meeting on February 17.
The Audit Office may then decide to present a report to Parliament in the light of recommendations which will almost certainly require Moray College to implement an action plan.
The funding council's intervention is significant t a time when it is carrying out a review of college management on behalf of ministers. Professor John Sizer, its chief executive, warned last October that boards must become more proactive in ensuring principals deliver value for money.
News of Dr Chalmers's suspension from the pound;70,000-a-year post he has held for eight years was greeted with ill-disguised delight by the unions for whom he had become a hate figure. "There will be no tears shed," Marian Healy, further and higher education officer of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said. "We are not surprised at the turn of events."
The board has appointed Greg Cooper, manager of the business and technology faculty, acting principal. Mr Cooper has been a member of staff since 1975.
Ms Healy said she hoped the new principal "would take us beyond the acrimonious industrial relations which have characterised the unions' relations with the college's management over the past few years".
EIS lecturers at the college became embroiled in a bitter dispute a couple of years ago over the sacking of a union activist, which culminated in industrial action. They accused the management of setting out to eliminate traditional craft courses by concentrating on degrees and higher education.
Moray's involvement with the University of the Highlands and Islands project required it to step up the number of advanced courses but here, too, Dr Chalmers hit a sour note when the college appeared at one stage to be intent on pulling out and building up its links with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.