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Wanted: finance whizzes at the top

Pressure is mounting on colleges to ensure they have fully-qualified finance professionals on their senior management teams. The absence of accountants from the decision-making process has being identified by inspectors as one of the main factors behind colleges running into financial problems.

A National Audit Office guide on avoiding budget blunders, to be published this summer, will highlight evidence from problem colleges. Investigations by College Manager have shown that Further Education Funding Council inspectors criticised many colleges, particularly Bilston and the Isle of Wight, for either failing to appoint qualified accountants or for excluding them from senior management meetings. Both colleges ran into serious problems, partly because of weak planning and financial monitoring.

Gwent Tertiary College, which ran up debts of pound;6.8 million in 199697, was criticise for failing to appoint a finance director to its senior management team until 10 months after embarking on a management restructuring.

The audit office guide will look at why 18 per cent of colleges were considered "financially weak" in 199697 - the last year for which audited accounts have been examined in detail by the FEFC.

"It's not a list of nasties," said an Audit Office spokesman. "It's about (colleges) learning lessons from what has gone wrong."

While the appointment of qualified accountants as senior managers does not guarantee well-being, the College Finance Directors' Group is pressing for the rules to be tightened. "We're concerned there is nothing formal which says colleges should have a qualified finance person, and that they should be part of the senior management team," said Peter Lennard its group chairman.

Finance report, pages 25-28

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