Wanted: governors to plug the gaps

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Wanted: governors to plug the gaps

A 'TES' survey reveals that the growing bureaucracy surrounding the way colleges are run is making it more difficult to fill governing bodies. Ian Nash reports.

Join a health service quango or commercial service hived off from central government control and you can earn pound;5,000 plus expenses. Sign up as a college governor and any such payments would be deemed corrupt.

The clash of cultures really struck home for one company finance manager who was doing both jobs. "I can tell you that the voluntary work for the college was far more demanding than the paid work for the quango."

For the chair of finance in one large Midlands college, the unpaid volunteer status of college governors was even more galling. He had been laid off as a well-paid local authority finance officer dealing with FE. Two years later "the college was asking me to give the same services for nothing".

He obliged, as more than 12,000 college governors throughout the United Kingdom oblige every week. But their patience is wearing thin as the mountain of paperwork and new demands from government and the Further Education Funding Council grow daily.

A confidential survey of college governors, carried out by The TES (see "FE Focus", January 14 2000), revealed a growing problem of recruitment. The survey - a questionnaire and followed up by in-depth interviews - identified no single factor as the most influential cause. However, the problems of increased bureaucracy resulting from government reforms to the curriculum and to college management and governance were cited most often. Typically: "The burden placed on governors by the funding council is discouraging membership among practitioners with relevant commercial knowledge."

If the Government were to do a snapshot of governing boards, it would probably show a healthy picture, with few long-standing vacancies and a reasonable spread of talents across the board. Some gaps could be explained by colleges holding back on appointments until reforms on the structure of governing bodies are implemented.

But scratch below the surface of the figures and a worrying picture emerges. The TES survey targeted 100 colleges - a representative sample of the 500 in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There was a 70 per cent response, revealing a consistent pattern of recruitment worries.

Almost 40 per cent of colleges said changes in appointment procedures announced last year, plus growing bureaucratic demands, made it more difficult to recruit governors. Only one college had found it easier to recruit.

It is the important skills that are most difficult to find: people with the acumen to chair finance committees and the political skills for the role of clerk to the board. Many colleges are uncertain how the new regulations on appointments, such as the requirement to have nominees from business and other areas, will influence recruitment in the longer term.

The situation is exacerbated because the drop-out rate is high. Colleges say they need governors to serve three to four years if they are to gain from the experience and help train new members. But in 52 per cent of colleges, more than a quarter of governors leave early. One in 12 colleges say they find it difficult to retain half their governors for the full term.

Part of the retention problem relates to the lack of good training. Several chairs of boards said that because of the number of pressures and demands on governors, many were inevitably left to sink or swim.

The good news is that, once recruited, those governors who receive training serve longer. Colleges are confident that the new pound;100m governor-training initiative will improve stay-on rates as well as standards of performance.

But there is a further problem: the increasing reluctance of small employers to release valuable and costly staff for such duties. Again, this raises the question of payment for services.

One governor, herself a small business director, said: "I have to pay for the time of outside contractors I use. What is the difference between this and the services colleges are asking for?" She was strongly committed to the "voluntary ideal" and the creation of opportunities for local people to get involved in the running of colleges. The recent reforms aim to encourage this through more community, student and staff representation. But what she resented was the way successive governments - while making huge savings dismantling local government - expected the private sector and "volunteer army" to work for nothing.

A typical response from colleges was: "As volunteers, their contribution is undervalued. As things are at the moment, why would someone wish to take the role on?" Many said recruitment was shifting towards retired people. "David Blunkett wants the board of governors to be a representative cross-section. I hardly think a team of the retired, however enthusiastic, constitutes that."

Colleges are not the only ones plagued by shortages. According to a survey by the Local Government Association, schools are at crisis point, with a shortfall of 20,000 governors out of more than 300,000 (9 per cent in primary and 8 per cent secondary). The same concerns emerged: the financial, bureaucratic and managerial demands of a job which is unpaid.

If there were emoluments for college governors, there would have to be payments for school governors, creating a potentially astronomic bill and one any government is unlikely to sanction.

But then, it is not just a question of cash. Many colleges with the worst problems insisted that the tranche of regulations and legislation needs a rethink. Take the pressure off without removing local accountability and create a system where justifiable payments can be targeted, said one governor (see story below).


Recruiting the right governors is fast becoming a process of plugging the gaps with any willing hand who will oblige. It is increasingly a "hit-and-miss affair", said one respondent in the TES national survey on governor recruitment. Only a fifth of colleges said they has no difficulty (see table, below).

Recent moves to reform the governance structure - removing the working majority of business interests and introducing "nominee" posts from a cross-section of the community - have not helped. "They may be more representative on paper, but putting it into practice is something else," said another respondent.

But it is the complexity of the laws, codes and statutory instruments that appears to be the greatest deterrent. Regulations under which governors must work are a combination of out-of-date laws and codes and knee-jerk reactions to sleaze, according to many governors we spoke to.

They see government increasingly dictating the terms under which boards must operate with ever less discretion. Charity laws, more relevant to a nineteenth-century economy, ban payment of emoluments. Rules and regulations following the Nolan inquiry into public standards are seen as more draconian than necessary.

Many of the rules imposed stem from measures more relevant to stamping out sleaze in Parliament. Moves towards the 21st century global economy have resulted in yet more restrictions.

Many principals and chairs interviewed want a proper debate on exactly what the line is between governance and management. When she came to power in 1979, Margaret Thatcher pledged to "roll back the areas of decision by government". Successive governments have continued that line.

Privatisation, decentralisation and individual responsibility followed. But with it came a raft of central government controls, cash limits, league tables, checks and inspections, backed by threats of litigation against transgressors.

One large northern college board summed up the reasons it was having difficulties finding governors: "The increased regulatory nature of their role, the reduction in opportunities to take initiatives, more burdensome duties and concern over personal liabilities are contributing to making it more difficult to recruit, coupled with a reduction in the number of business governors."

A large Midlands college complained of "bureaucracy enforced on all colleges because of the problems at a few".

A large agricultural college complained of the "increased paperload, audit and inspection requirements militating against recruitment of good governors".

As governments continue to cut back their involvement in the management of state institutions, they make more demands on volunteers such as college governors to take over the reins.

Reforms in the Learning and Skills Bill will bring yet more responsibilities for - and checks on - the effectiveness of local learning partnerships and other arrangements involving colleges.

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