The price of freedom

29th September 2000 at 01:00
The Gwent Tertiary College disaster sent shockwaves throughout Wales. Its politicians have been busy sifting through the wreckage, seeking assurances that such a crash could not happen again. The fiasco has confirmed the opinion of some members in the National Assembly that colleges would be better back under local-authority control.

Janet Davies (Plaid Cymru, South Wales West) chaired the assembly's audit committee of inquiry hearing. "There are quite a number (of Assembly members) who would actually look very favourably on that," she says. "Certainly I would," she says.

The hearing took place in June and the committee is due to report at the end of this month. David Mason, the principal of Coleg Gwent, and Steve Martin, chief executive of the Welsh Further Education Funding Council, were among those giving evidence. At the end, discussion turned to the wider issue of whether the existing model of self-governing colleges, as introduced by incorporation, was the right one. Sir John Bourne, Auditor General for Wales, gave a definite No.

"The model that was introduced for the management of further education was designed to give much greater power and authority to the governing bodies of these institutions," he said. "I think that among the motives for that was the idea that freedom would lead to energy and enterprise. However, I think experience has shown that it was a freedom not backed by proper experience, proper systems and proper proceduresI I do not think that it is a good model for running further education institutions."

According to Richard Hirst, director of finance at the Further Education Funding Council for Wales, Sir John's comments mean that colleges in Wales must avoid another such scandal.

"That's a context in which we in the sector have to operate, mindful of the fact that the Assembly audit committee has been told by its chief adviser that the model of governance in the FE sector doesn't work. It's a very defensive reason for ensuring that things run properly and obviously there are more positive reasons than that. But that's the context, that the sector clearly needs to ensurethat things don't go wrong in future."

New systems have been established for Wales's 24 FE colleges following the experience at Gwent. Much of it mirrors what happens in England: the princiality has collaborated on the new guide on training for governors and a version for principals and senior management. But Wales has also gone a few steps further. The appointment of clerks to governing bodies now has to be approved by the funding council. And clerks have to comply with strict requirements. There has to be an annual statement that governance has been properly conducted throughout that year and that the basics such as quorums have been observed.

Another purely Welsh initiative is the governance and management development programme. Colleges conduct a self-assessment of these areas, which is then checked against the funding council's view of how they are doing. An action plan is drawn up to address any shortcomings.

Richard Hirst says: "We want to be working with the sector because clearly it's in everybody's interest that governors and management are of the highest possible quality."

Meanwhile, David Mason says there are lessons to be learned from Gwent Tertiary College. But he believes it is a mistake to use them as a stick to beat Welsh FE .

"I think there's a great danger of knee-jerk reactions to these sorts of situations - and to draw a conclusion that because of what happened here, all the colleges in Wales are somehow vulnerable to disaster.

"In Gwent Tertiary College you had an almost unique set of circumstances. You had a very large merged college where cultural inheritance hadn't been tackled. You had what some would probably describe as a fairly complacent governing body. I think you had a principal that didn't quite understand the financial implications of some of her ideas. And I think there's absolutely no doubt that the finance function was not capable of dealing with such a large college and the problems of its merger of its finances.

"So if you add all those things up, how many other colleges in the UK are going to be faced with that set of circumstances?"

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