College mismanagement is a stain we must remove

16th October 2015 at 00:00

It was an announcement that sent shock waves through the Scottish further education sector last week: education secretary Angela Constance made the unprecedented move of removing an entire college board of management (bit.ly/BreakingGlasgow).

Which is not to say the decision was a surprise. Ever since it was reported weeks ago that Ms Constance had written to the chair of the Glasgow Clyde College board warning that she might take this action, the sector has been waiting for her move.

Perhaps some were taken aback by the choice of what opposition politicians called the “nuclear option” – removing the whole board rather than just the chair – but drastic action was needed, regardless of who may have been at fault in the conflict at the heart of this.

The college has been in turmoil ever since the suspension of principal Susan Walsh in February. Seven months later, the situation had reached deadlock. A disciplinary hearing had not yet taken place, and the college got caught up in a public exchange of views over various allegations of mismanagement; leaked documents increased the pressure.

As the newly appointed chair and his board take charge, the crisis is far from over. The principal remains suspended, and in the wake of the former board’s removal, the EIS teaching union stressed that its concerns over college management had not been addressed.

Some may, however, find themselves asking much wider questions about college governance in Scotland, especially in a month when the failures of the past, pre-regionalisation model of governance raised their ugly heads again.

First, the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit Committee announced last week that it would be taking oral evidence from the former principal and chair of what was then Coatbridge College, after the auditor general unearthed “serious governance weaknesses in voluntary severance arrangements”.

Then, earlier this week, the committee announced findings that governance arrangements at North Glasgow College had been “unacceptable” (see page 7). Both cases concerned the payments received by senior managers as they left the college in the run-up to merger, and show the power that principals, and their boards, have had in the past.

Their colleges have ceased to exist, but the stain of the numerous governance failures in the sector remains – and distracts from what colleges are really about. The greed and egos of individuals, and the noisy discontent of some, cannot be what our institutions are known for.

Scottish FE will need to work to regain the trust of the government, its students and the wider public, and show it is worthy not only of the public money it already receives but also, as it struggles to make ends meet, worthy of more.

And if colleges can demonstrate that they are more than just a hotbed of scandal, it shouldn’t be too much to hope that the countless success stories taking place behind classroom doors might take their turn in the spotlight.

julia.belgutay@tess.co.uk

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