'Openness is the key to probity'

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
' There should be very few things that are kept secret. You should question the reason every time'.

Will the Government's new measures ensure that there are no more scandals in further education? Has enough been done to ensure that governing bodies are on their toes? Has too much been done, leaving governors demoralised and likely to quit?

The power of business governors has been curbed, and staff, student and local authority representatives are now a requirement. All governors, within six months of appointment, are expected to undergo training. The powers of Whitehall and the Further Education Funding Council to intervene have been beefed up, so that the council's handbook on governors now says:

"If the Secretary of State considers that the affairs of any college within the sector have been or are being mismanaged, he may remove all or some of the governors andor modify the instrument of government." He can also "act on any complaint made to him that a governing body has failed to discharge any duty imposed on it". He can now also nominate two members to it.

David Melville, the council's chief executive, thinks the new systems will ensure that decision-making is opened up. "Openness is the key to probity," he told student governors recently. "There should be very few things that are kept secret, and you should question the reason every time."

The lecturers' union, Natfhe, agrees. Dan Taubman, an assistant secretary, says: "Staff governors have been discouraged from making their views known and have been excluded from discussion on the grounds of confidentiality. The governing body can declare items confidential and the staff and studet governors must leave. This can happen even in relation to commercial contracts."

Mark Atkinson, vice-president for FE at the National Union of Students, says colleges that drag their feet in giving places to student representatives are "denying students their rightful place in determining the future of the learning environment to which they have entrusted their education".

In the light of past college scandals, it would now be hard for any college to justify keeping from staff or student governors information about commercial contracts. But according to Mr Taubman, in the past they have often been treated as second class citizens, with the business governors holding the real power.

Those who think the new rules have gone too far include Ray Dowd, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College. Reducing the number of governors from business, he says, is a move in the wrong direction, and he thinks business members will become disillusioned. The Government has over-reacted to the spate of college scandals and introduced too many control mechanisms, he says.

Several chairs of governors with business backgrounds share these concerns. They believe governing bodies should have a majority of business members, so that they are close to business. They think that business people will be reluctant to join these bodies because of the amount of work and responsibility it involves. They are also concerned at the still unclarified position about whether governors can be personally responsible for debts arising from college mismanagement. No governor has ever been held personally liable, but neither has it been made clear that they cannot be liable.

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