Give us access to secret FE files - for all our good;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
When the Berlin wall came down for good, there was dancing in the streets. One of the reasons for the frivolity was the expectation that the files of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, would at last be opened up. And so it proved.

Nobody was surprised that the files existed, but most were astonished to learn just how many there were and how few people did not have access to the information about themselves, provided by a network of informers and gathered into a personal file.

How very different from the home life of our own dear FE colleges. We know, don't we, that the Further Education Funding Council keeps files on each of us. We would expect them to. We do, after all, keep them well supplied with information about us, through our regular returns of statistical data, strategic plans and financial forecasts. It would be mortifying to think that all this stuff were binned on arrival. But what else is in there?

The easiest way to find out would be to go and look. That's not allowed, apparently. The files are not secret in that you are permitted to know that they exist, but they are in the sense that you can't see them.

Does the Data Protection Act have anything to say about this? The files do, allegedly, contain newspaper cuttings and other "factual" information. Who decides what to include and by what criteria? We are not told.

The FEFC record telephone conversations that they have with college employees. Is it all such conversations? If not, how do they know when to switch the machine on or off? Are the tapes also part of the file? Nobody is prepared to say.

It is said by those who work for the FEFC that the files are used as source material for briefings given in advance of college visits by a minister, say, or an inspection team. These briefings are normally prepared without reference to the college concerned, and it is not expected that colleges will ever see them.

Much of the information in the briefings comes from the college. As it prepares the brief, the FEFC inevitably selects what to put in and what to leave out. Bang goes the supposed objectivity.

As it happens, I was given a copy of a recent briefing note on this college, by a kind FEFC officer and I noted not only selective use of data but simple errors of fact. The errors are not desperately serious, but they could have been, and normally would have gone unchallenged.

The Stasi never pretended to be an open, accountable organisation. The FEFC does. Indeed it makes great play of the fact that so much data about colleges is now in the public domain. Quite right too, so it should be; public money, public scrutiny.

Perhaps the problem is simply that the FEFC has not yet worked out what its policy on files and access to them is. If so, they should get on with it, for at least two reasons.

The first is the matter of trust. It was not I but an FEFC officer who pointed out, in jest of course, that if I turned up, unannounced, at the FEFC offices and asked to see the file on the college, they would not have time to weed out all the information they did not want me to see. I laughed, naturally. We need not just an open file policy but a code of conduct to go with it.

The second reason is the growing significance of regional bodies with real power.

The Regional Development Agencies, according to a Government minister, should have powers of planning further education. They will base those plans in part on information supplied to them by the FEFC. It simply has to be accurate, otherwise the region or college will lose out - perhaps both.

People and the organisations for which they work gain power from the withholding of information.

The FEFC doesn't need to behave like an overbearing parent. Power and responsibility, please, not the former without the latter.

For consolation, there's always the thought that, if my disc gets lost, I have a good idea of where I might find a hard copy of this piece - carefully filed under "Paranoia".

Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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