When FE is talked about on trains in the same overheard conversation as football, something sensational must have happened. Last month it was not, alas, colleges' strong showing in examination league tables, nor the state of enrolments. The topic was sleaze, and its alleged appearance in the sector.
From the seat behind mine came strong words about private and public interests being mixed up, about lack of control, and about education having "more money than was good for it". It was deeply depressing, not just because they had got only half a story from the national press coverage, but because they didn't seem to have been surprised at what they read.
I was left wondering whether colleges are now thought to be part of the twilight world of back-handers for services rendered, inflated pay-offs, and dodgy hotel bills, lumped together with the other examples of the collapsed ethics of Thatcher's Britain.
That would be most unfair on college managers trying to make sense of confusing signals. Be entrepreneurial, we are told. Does that include taking risks? Go for growth, comes the call. At whose expense, and using what methods? Some of the rules are, at first sight, clear and helpful. We have a set of financial regulations, for example. Principals or governors who ignore them are asking for trouble, and the auditors will make sure they get it.
There may be difficulties when an opportunity comes up, a quick decision has to be made, and the regulations require a formal approval process which cannot be activated because the key governor is out of the country. The chance is lost. Fair enough, that is part of the proper accountability of the public sector, not without its frustrations, but at least you can sleep at night.
Issues are, however, not always so clear-cut. Sir William Stubbs, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, went to some length recently to emphasise the need for probity in the sector. The fact that he thought it necessary to remind us was itself an indication of present unease.
Sir William suggested two main criteria against which to judge our activities. Is public money being applied for the purpose intended? Is the public purse paying twice or more for the same service? If the answer to the first question is yes and to the second no, then sleep should continue to be undisturbed. And we should be able to reassure him on both points. And yet, and yet...
Let us suppose that a college, a mythical, hypothetical college naturally, decides to use some of its FEFC funding not directly on current students but on trying to attract more in order to meet the growth targets which we have been urged to accept. No problem, surely. Is there any limit to legitimate marketing? Free buses? Starter packs of pen, paper, files, etc? Discounted meals? Free enrolments for siblings or parents? Petrol allowances? Signing-on fees? Loyalty bonuses?
Somewhere along that continuum, presumably, a line should be drawn. Where, precisely, may vary between colleges, according to their corporate state of mind and their progress towards targets. To say, however, that desperate times justify desperate measures is to say that there is no morality.
Some colleges are already fairly desperate, faced with falling rolls and rising deficits. Since it's presumably wrong to bribe students to come, or, having come, to stay, how do we collectively decide which of the above constitutes a bribe, because some are already on offer in some places? I don't recall any guidance on such things, so it must be left to our professional judgment andor ethical consciences.
Senior managers are paid to exercise that kind of judgment, of course, and if the kitchen is getting too hot, we should get out. But, to extend the metaphor, who will replace us by the stove? Somebody more skilled at making fine calculations on moral issues, or somebody who is impervious to heat, brazen in fact?
Some college managers - call them ingenious or devious - have worked out ways of counting students which strain previous definitions, but which may or may not be acceptable in the new growth-oriented circumstances. A list of such mythical and hypothetical practices might include: enrolling patients in hospital medical wards; coming to a neat registration arrangement with a local, private secretarial college; franchising the owners of old people's homes to lay on some sort of educational activity; enrolling students at driving schools at so much a head.
The question must be whether in any of these cases, which are merely examples of what might happen, any value is added to the process. Does the college control the activities, or even contribute to them? There will be no hard and fast rules by which to judge. We shall have to depend on the gradual accumulation of case law to get any sense of what auditors think is reasonable. Those who get "caught" will be pilloried, and the rest of us will feel a little wiser.
The Romans had a handy test to apply to issues like these. Cui bono or who benefits? If, or probably when, some of the practices described are discovered, who will be thought to have benefited? If it's an individual who has lined a personal pocket, then, no argument. Down the road they go. If bending or breaking hitherto unwritten rules has brought money to the college which has been used for the benefit of the college, does that change things? Is it the mythical victimless crime or are these examples of what Sir William called spending public money for purposes for which it was not intended.
We are all operating at the frontier now, and if we are not probing new territory we might be neglecting the interests of our colleges. Damned if we do, damned if we don't. No wonder the sector is fretful, anxious and not at peace with itself.
Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale Tertiary College.