It seems a curious time to be arguing that college governors should be rewarded, when two governing bodies have been recommended for dismissal after enquiries by the Further Education Funding Council into financial mismanagement. But the Colleges' Employers' Forum has raised a point that deserves to be answered: what is the difference between membership of a health service trust, for which an allowance is paid, and being a college governor, for which no remuneration is allowed?
And is the burden on school governors any less onerous? Certainly the time factor is likely to be just as great. The financial scale of hospitals and colleges may be bigger, but school governors are responsible for the wider personal and social development of pupils, are more directly accountable to parents, and are increasingly expected to shoulder many of the duties once exercised by elected education authorities.
School, college and hospital trustees are bound by similar individual and corporate liabilities for health and safety, and for honesty, diligence and good faith in all their functions. Colleges can insure their governors against charges of negligence in carrying out their duties; schools, it seems, are not allowed to use their delegated budgets for this purpose.
The complaint of the Colleges' Employers' Forum that inability to pay limits choice of effective governors and discriminates against those unable to take unpaid time off from work - especially women and ethnic minorities - is doubly applicable to schools, where the widest representation is vital if they are to be the voice of the community's interest. Similar arguments about diversity among those who govern us are used to justify MPs' own profitable sidelines. And yet school governors cannot even claim for child care costs, making governorship for most single parents virtually impossible.
The Government's justification for not paying governors is reported in the FEFC Guide for College Governors, endorsed by John Patten last May: "The Secretary of State . . . sees value in the tradition of governors of educational institutions providing their services on a voluntary and unpaid basis."
A tradition there certainly is in charity law that a trustee should act gratuitously, and at his or her peril. But what is the "value" of that principle if it distorts the effectiveness of governing bodies, other than the obvious one that paying college governors would cost an estimated Pounds 5 million and there are nearly 40 times as many school governors? And why has it been ignored in the case of health trusts? At a time when probity and reward in public service is under scrutiny, governors are entitled to a straighter answer to why they should not receive some compensation for their time and lost income.