A leading education lawyer has criticised the Government and its quangos for their role in the wake of the Halton affair, which saw the Cheshire college forced to repay pound;6.4 million after a series of unfounded funding claims and overseas trips by the principal and his deputy.
John Boardman, a partner in law firm Eversheds', said the publication of scathing reports by the Further Education Funding Council and the National Audit Office was "truly lamentable" and had undermined public confidence in further education.
Speaking at the Association of Principals of Colleges annual conference in Liverpool this week, he said: "There was clearly much to criticise about the pattern of activity at Halton, but what is truly lamentable is the way in which the FEFC and NAO reports have released a torrent of adverse media publicity about further education at a time when colleges are bracing themselves to deliver the Government's ambitious plans for lifelong learning.
"The reports have damaged the public profile of the sector and prompted a political response -name and shame - which will surely follow colleges like an albatross for the foreseeable future.
"What the reports do not do is identify the real origins of the problems at Halton. These can be traced to the collective failure by government and its agencies to prepare colleges for corporate independence and the subsequent neglect of governance during the immediate post-incorporation period. The audit process has also badly failed the sector, as has the mechanistic "tick box" approach to governance which has paid lip service to Nolan."
He later added: "There is a feeling among principals that what happened at Halton could have happened to them. Halton was held up as a beacon college, it was doing really well and then two years later it's all fallen down."
He accused the FEFC of giving out mixed messages by praising colleges like Halton for innovative work and then lambasting them when it all went wrong. "At one point franchising is wonderful, then it's rubbish. Colleges are being pushed one way and then the other."
Problems arose because the administrative set-up of colleges allowed power to fall into the hands of a few people but governing bodies could not be expected to act as "unpaid watchdogs".