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Too much power in two few hands

David Morgan on the lessons to be learned from reports on the mismanagement of two colleges. The publication of two independent inquiries reporting mismanagement and governance at two FE colleges has sent, if not shockwaves, at least a ripple of concern throughout the sector.

Yet the initial reaction of most colleges has been less one of concern than of amazement that such a bizarre situation could have occurred. Most chairmen and principals seem to have adopted the view that the institutions concerned are in no way typical and that governance and management within their own colleges is responsible and ethical.

All colleges will now have received copies of the inquiry reports into Derby College, Wilmorton, and the Roman Catholic St Philip's VIth Form College, Birmingham. That there were serious failures in governance and management at both institutions is beyond doubt. That the governing body, especially at St Philip's, went beyond its powers is also beyond dispute. The Further Education Funding Council has said that it will issue a document to the sector detailing the lessons to be learnt from the two inquiries.

However, colleges should draw their own conclusions from both reports. The distinction between governance and management, the limit on the role of the corporation in relation to the principal and senior management, and the structure of effective decision-making are all stressed in the two documents.

Many of the problems at St Philip's arose because of the religious nature and history of the college. Too much power was concentrated in too few hands and was exercised in a particularly insensitive manner. Yet that is a situation which could exist, in one form, almost anywhere.

It is all too easy within any corporation for a small group of senior governors, often retired from permanent employment, to form an inner circle or clique which effectively takes over decision-making from the main body.

It is often useful to have members who are freely available to devote their energies and experience to college affairs. What they must not do, however, is to usurp the role of the whole corporation and operate a two-tier system of governance.

Many colleges find that potential governors are put off by the amount of time involved to perform effectively. Poor attendance at meetings often reflects the difficulties that "working" governors find in fitting in their duties and responsibilities to their colleges with their duties to their companies, employers and families.

Add on other events like social functions, presentations, meeting with senior management, conferences, invitations from staff for internal events, to say nothing of governor training and coping with the volume of documentation that seems to issue forth in a constant stream from all colleges, is it any wonder that some governors find that it is all too much?

In such a situation, it is easy to leave matters to those who have more available time and less potential loss of income. I personally believe that being a good corporation member is not just about attending official meetings but having enough contact with staff and students, to know their concerns, to get the "feel" of the place and know what is going on in the college in the widest sense possible.

Any governor who cannot attend at least 75 per cent of official meetings should consider his or her position. Not only are they not pulling their weight but it places an added burden on other governors, especially if they attend so few official meetings that they effectively disbar themselves from the corporation.

The role of chair is critical, particularly his or her relationship with the principal and chief executive. Most chairs have a harmonious and constructive relationship with their principals: but there must be a balance between their two roles with neither assuming a dominance over the other.

Any alert corporation should be aware of any stresses and strains that arise - particularly if it might become known outside the corporation. Staff governors in particular are sensitive to the finer nuances that quickly become apparent should a problem arise, either between the chairman or even the corporation and the principal.

The responsibilities of corporation members are stressed in both reports and any governors unhappy with their effectiveness and discharging their responsibilities and stewardship should voice their concerns as soon as possible.

Following the comments made in the two reports, the concept of possible conflict of interest should always be remembered, not just commercial or financial interest but local or sectional interest as well. Governors are there to do the best for the college, not represent the interests of outside pressure groups with which they are in sympathy or to which they might belong.

The reports should be studied by all governors with a view to reviewing their own procedures, especially in the light of the FEFC code of conduct.

However, most colleges will probably deem it more suitable to await the comments of the funding council before taking more formal action. In particular, the role of the audit committee as the watchdog of the corporation should be examined.

However, one point puzzles me. Knowing how further education leaks like a sieve, how many other colleges near the offending colleges knew what was going on, yet took the view that it was a purely internal matter for the institutions concerned?

One can hardly envisage colleges monitoring each others activities. But if there is a gross breach of trust, misuse of public money, flagrant breaches of acceptable standards of corporate behaviour, what then? An uncomfortable question which, I suspect, no one wants to answer.

David Morgan is chair of governors at Guildford College of Further and Higher Education.

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