Greed will always follow gold

16th February 2007 at 00:00

The jailing of lecturer turned businessman Stuart Spacey marks the end of a sorry era for further education. Up to pound;1 million of public money was embezzled through the poorly policed murky world of public-private partnerships at Barnsley College. Spacey was imprisoned, while his co-accused former college principal David Eade escaped prosecution on health grounds.

It was the high profile end to a catalogue of crimes and misdemeanours carried out by people who spotted loopholes in every government initiative from industry franchising to individual learning accounts.

The catalogue was small but it did disproportionate damage to the reputation of colleges. Draconian measures followed, increasing red tape and bureaucratic checks in an over-regulated system. Innovation was stifled and people grew cynical of Tony Blair's public-private Third Way.

Have we seen an end to such scams?

The University and College Union responded to the Spacey sentence with a warning that abuses are inevitable wherever the private market holds sway over the public sector. The union is right, up to a point. But it paints a distorted picture of public honesty versus private corruption.

Nevertheless, watch this space for Train to Gain and new learning accounts abuses.

Colleges will remember the guarantees given by ministers and senior civil servants that franchising and individual learning accounts would be rigorously policed. The cash up for grabs by private industry and individuals this time is considerably more than was available when the Barnsley-type scams were at their height. Train to Gain alone will have pound;1billion, possibly pound;3bn, a year if the Leitch report recommendations are carried through.

As Alan Tuckett points out on this page, this represents a huge shift of resources away from traditional adult education. So, if the new policies fail, the million students currently losing out will feel just as robbed as they would if the cash were embezzled.

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