Rethink promised on boards

4th April 2003 at 01:00
THE Scottish Executive has promised to take another look in two years' time at the changes it is introducing into the way colleges are run.

As we reported last week, the Executive has acknowledged in its review of college governance and accountability that "fresh blood and new ideas" are necessary for boards of management - likely to be renamed boards of governors.

Complaints about college management will be considered by a new independent arbiter and there will be an additional power for the FE funding council to attend college board meetings.

The detailed report from the Executive, issued late last Friday, reveals that ministers do not intend to seek further powers to remove board members. Under the 1992 Act which established incorporated colleges they can dismiss a board or individual members if it appears they have mismanaged the affairs of the college, and appoint a replacement board - powers that have never been used.

The Executive believes that the ongoing monitoring of colleges' financial health should be sufficient, along with the new power to intervene at board meetings. This "would provide greater assurance that the board fully understood its role and responsibilities, and specifically the requirement on boards to move out of deficit in no more than three years".

Ministers have clearly decided to take a cautious view. There is, for example, to be no bar on college boards filling their own vacancies, although the Auditor-General stated in his report to the Scottish Parliament that this approach could be inconsistent with transparency and impartiality.

However, the Executive's response states: "Many colleges felt that this issue is strongly linked to college autonomy, and that any change in favour of a system of appointments by ministers or other external agencies could impact on that autonomy."

Ministers have promised to consider whether the restriction on local councillors and officials serving on FE boards should be lifted. There may not be the same need as 11 years ago "to isolate the leadership of college boards from local authority influence", the review states. Any conflicts of interest can be dealt with under the ethical standards legislation.

Tom Kelly, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, regretted the "disappointingly downbeat" nature of the review.

"The sector has done remarkably well in very demanding circumstances and this must be down to college leadership and boards of management," he said.

"This is, unpaid, voluntary public service, not paid appointments."

Marian Healy of the Educa-tional Institute of Scotland described the review as "a bit of a disappointment, although it is a first attempt to address governance issues".

She welcomed the new eight-year limit on the length of time board members are allowed to serve.

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