New verse for an old song could help us all

31st March 2000 at 01:00
TRAVELLING to work recently I listened to a new version of an old song - a duet between an Edinburgh MSP and a Westminster MP about which parliament had control over which Scottish political issues. This particular version concerned who would investigate the escalating costs of the new Parliament building - the National Audit Office or the newly-established audit unit of the Scottish Executive.

It seemed at first that each elected representative wanted its own brand of auditors. But given that the MSP was a Scottish Nationalist whose party was critical of the projected overspend on the Parliament building, I don't think the issue was really about choosing a particular set of auditors in order to control them, since an audit critical of the Executive would assist a non-

governmental party. It was simply a good old turf war, and I believe these songs of the turf war or versions of them will be in the Scottish charts for some time to come.

In further education we have our own songs about turf wars and audits. With the new emphasis on collaboration, such wars between colleges should be in the past, but we're not there yet. We still have other colleges poaching, and it's obvious that the old competitive model survives.

But we have better songs about audits, for we know them well in FE. We have audits from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, from Europe and from our own financial internal and external auditors. We even have internal quality audit teams and internal health and safety audits.

And in the FE sector we are good at audits. Without being complacent, we are used to them; we prepare properly; we co-operate with the auditors; we take on board criticisms, accept plaudits, and are keen to learn the lessons.

But the audit songs are not happy songs. We all know how important audits are: they exist so that the public sector is examined about the proper (or is that prudent?) use of its allocated resources and provide value for money; and so that fraud can be detected, and in the case of quality audits so that quality systems can be assured.

But there are too many adits. And despite the fact that many of those who conduct the audits - both internal and external - are helpful and reasonable, audits are stressful and can easily distract from the main purpose of the organisation. I must also acknowledge that there is a clan of "auditors from hell", but that's life.

Anyway, most of the audit songs are, if not laments, at least like a Leonard Cohen song - - the kind where your hi-fi has tears flowing from the speakers.

However, at last help seems to be on the way. After a recent review by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council of quality assessment, involving a consultation exercise for the FE sector, it has been seen that the greatest concern is about the burden of audit and that action is needed, pronto, to reduce the burden.

Action will include a move to common documentation for all auditingreview bodies, a requirement on HMI to publish review visit schedules and to seek to establish pilots for joint visits with a view to co-ordinating the auditreview processes of different bodies. Perhaps most significant will be the endorsement of credit transfer arrangements between the different bodies.

Yippee! This tune sounds like the bugle of the Seventh Cavalry riding to the rescue. Don't think I'm getting carried away - I've also seen the film where the cavalry turned out to be the Indians - sorry, native Americans - dressed in cavalry uniforms.

This new system will still involve outside auditors. But colleges do have their own, too. They are not properly ours - we pay them a fee rather than employ them. As internal auditors, they evaluate, assess and report on internal control systems and assist in prevention and detection of frauds and irregularities. They also assess business risks and establish priorities in developing procedures to minimise the risks.

So they work with us to sort out problems before things go wrong. They probably do more than most to help us sleep at night. So there are some happy auditing songs - lullabies.

Norman Williamson is depute principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the EIS.

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