Unpaid heroes in search of a role

11th June 2004 at 01:00
As the Association of Scottish Colleges gathers for its annual conference today (Friday), Ed Weeple asks what boards of management are for

I have recently joined the board of management of Edinburgh's Telford College - causing me to consider from that new perspective the governance and management of FE and the role of board members.

Although the reality was, and is, that the FE sector has performed extraordinarily well overall in meeting the many and varied competing expectations that it has had to handle, difficulties were being experienced in the running of individual colleges. But were they isolated events, specific to the colleges concerned, or were they symptomatic of wider difficulties?

So what role did boards have in the colleges that got into difficulty? Who were on the boards? How were they appointed? What experiences and skills did they have? What was their relationship with management, in particular the chief executive or principal and senior management team? What information was available to them, and when? What authority and means of control did they have? How much was and should have been delegated by boards to committees and to management?

This continues to be important because, at its heart, is the question: who does make the decisions that shape the direction, functions and performance of a college? And how ought authority and power to be distributed between boards (and their committees) and operational management?

At the risk of oversimplified generalisation, the answer is that in practice - in common with the rest of the education sector - it is the principal, with his or her senior management team, who is both in charge and the highly visible leader of the organisation. (In my eight years in government dealing with FE, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had dealings with board chairs.) Indeed it is remarkably revealing to look at individual college websites to see just how much or how little they say about their boards. The information varies from nothing at all through to extensive profiling with photographs, descriptive text and, in some cases, the detailed register of interests. I suspect that there is some correlation between the amount of information put out in this way and the degree of attention the management team gives to the board.

Elsewhere in the public sector, the position is often very different. In the many years I worked in the health departments, for example, it was apparent that the role of the board chair - at regional, area, local or institutional level - was considered to be significant; and ministers and other key interest groups would go out of their way to pay attention to them. The same could be said of the enterprise bodies or the research institutes. Not so, it would appear in FE - or indeed HE.

But why the very low profile of FE boards of management? One possible reason is that boards themselves do not consider their roles to be important or significant. They may feel that the direction of their college is so heavily influenced by external influence, especially the funding regime, that in reality they have very little say.

Board members tend to be very busy people and can only give limited time to this role so that it is not surprising if some wish to confine themselves to a relatively infrequent and largely regulatory process-driven function.

It does need to be borne in mind that board members perform their highly responsible functions on a purely voluntary basis, without any financial recompense.

Perhaps, though, there is real uncertainty and confusion about roles: whether a board of management is primarily about management or (implicitly more restrictive) about governance.

So should boards be more concerned with how the management of the college performs? The board I have just joined is supported in its functions not by a member of staff of the college, but by a firm of distinguished Edinburgh solicitors. The highly laudable objective is clearly to ensure that the board is able to exercise independent scrutiny of the management, without being captured by it, and this is a necessary position for any board.

This mode of operation clearly has its strengths - the college is successful and well run - but it does raise questions about the degree of ownership that the board has for the operation of the college as a whole. I am aware that this question is one that the board itself has been addressing.

Essentially the question for any college board is should they be as much, if not more, concerned with performance management as with strategic direction or the appropriateness and propriety of systems; concerned with setting standards of performance, and holding the principal and the senior management team to account against those standards.

If one looks at the original statute, it is difficult to believe that there can be any doubt about the answer to that question. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 makes it clear that "a board of management shall have the duty of managing and conducting the college, and ensuring that the college provides suitable and efficient further education to the students of the college". It is the board which has the legal responsibility to charge fees, support students, provide facilities.

The implication for boards is daunting and disconcerting. If boards take seriously the words that they are in a real sense ultimately responsible for the management and conduct of their college, then it suggests that they may in certain cases have to be taking a rather more active, involved and high-profile role than has hitherto been the case. It may well have implications for their relationship with the principal and senior management.

The questions to be asked and answered by the board could well be sharper and deeper. So too might the nature and scale of the information routinely required - all this to enable boards to determine the standards of performance they require from management, and the information to assess whether those standards are being achieved.

This is asking a lot of the people appointed to boards - even if their very presence on boards demonstrates clearly their willingness to undertake a high degree of public service commitment and tackle difficult and complex issues for no financial reward.

It is not perhaps surprising that many boards have been reluctant to take on the full implications of their statutory role and allow these responsibilities to be taken up and carried by the professional management.

Given the nature of their responsibilities, it is quite remarkable the extent to which the spirit of public altruism encourages so many busy people to volunteer unpaid to "manage and conduct" an FE college.

But the events of the past few years and the degree of intensive external and self-examination of the sector in this period almost certainly mean that in future boards of management will have to be more proactively engaged in the leadership of their colleges, as well as being more vigilant in oversight of agreed systems and processes, than they have ever been.

If the expectations of the Scottish Parliament, ministers and the media are for more knowledgeable, more accountable and more proactive boards of management, then the Scottish Executive and the funding council will have to address again the question of how to ensure that sufficient numbers of able and experienced people are attracted to take on these onerous responsibilities in the first place and are persuaded to stay.

The Executive could acknowledge more often than it does the importance it attaches to these issues by recognising and saluting the work of board members. And perhaps now is the time for chairs to be financially recompensed for the considerable and valuable time they invest in our colleges.

The Association of Scottish Colleges has championed this cause before; perhaps it should now do so again. A positive response from the Executive would send an important signal to the sector about the value placed on this work.

Ed Weeple was formerly head of the lifelong learning group in the Scottish Executive.

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