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Why has principals' pay been such a guilty secret?;FE Focus

Key decisions about a publicly funded service cannot be taken behind closed doors, says John Cassidy

DISCLOSURE of the salaries of further education college principals (TESS, April 30) was based upon curiosity about how principals have fared since incorporation as opposed to other staff working in FE.

We at the chalkface have been trying vigorously since incorporation to find out these details. This is public money we are talking about, so why should disclosure be left to an educational newspaper? The TES Scotland could not uncover the value of the total packages many principals receive. That is a disgrace.

There are much wider questions that need to be asked. The whole question of transparency and accountability for boards of management needs to be answered. I am on the board of Cardonald College, yet I do not know the principal's salary.

Nor do I know what the strategic management team earns. The only time the board is informed is when the annual accounts are published. Even then details are vague. Apart from the principal's financial package, posts from the depute down to the assistant principals are simply placed within a pound;5,000 band.

There are, however, some members of the board who know the answers: those who are on the salaries and conditions of service committee (remuneration). The board, and anyone who reads the minutes of board meetings, knows who is on this committee. Cardonald staff are fortunate. They know that prior to board meetings the agenda is pinned on the public noticeboard, followed shortly after the meeting by the minutes.

But, when it comes to the remuneration committee, openness and transparency fly out of the window. The standard practice is a short note to the board informing it that the committee has met, where and when; no sederunt, no agenda and, more importantly, no minutes. This level of conceit and arrogance - it is not confidentiality - is not acceptable where public funds are involved.

It has taken four years of constant complaining, and objecting, by elected staff board reps to get a semi-decent report from these committee meetings. As far as I am aware, Cardonald is more open than most - little as we have progressed. After all these years of campaigning, we now receive details of who was at the meeting and what decisions were reached.

I have argued since incorporation that there should be no secret meetings, be it a chair's committee or a remuneration committee. Despite what some claim, FE is still a sector of public education involving public money and must be more accountable.

Publication of the salaries opens up the question of the accountability of boards. High salary levels for managements are said to be driven by market forces. How can that be when 39 of the 43 incorporated colleges are supposed to be in deficit? If indeed it were market forces, and not just fancy excuses for upping salaries, many principals would be penalised.

The normal practice for companies in the market-place is for the chief executive to explain results to the board and shareholders (the public) at the annual meeting. How many colleges hold an open annual meeting? In loss-making concerns, serious questions are asked. If satisfactory answers are not forthcoming, the chief executive is honour bound to resign.

Is that the case in FE? No - unless that is why there were sudden departures from Clydebank, Reid Kerr and now Cambuslang. Yet the previous principal left Clydebank with a generous package, unlike staff who took "voluntary" terms. I also notice from the salaries table that Langside upped Alastair Tyre's salary prior to retiral, despite the college being safety-netted. As for Cardonald, although I voiced disapproval with Ray Bailey's retiral package, at least we were in the black.

You have published only the salary levels of the principals, but it doesn't end there. The old Employers' Association recommended a proportional scale for senior management salaries to be linked to that of the college principal, and it still operates in many colleges. But this extends the secrecy and lack of accountability because the higher the principal's salary the greater the cost of management as a whole.

There are performance indicators for almost everything in FE, from average unit costs to the student headcount. But there is still no openness on chief executives' salaries and packages. Are they too embarrassing to publish?

Compare the ease with which they receive rises with the struggle of lecturers to negotiate with these same people locally since incorporation. In fact, the list that was revealed details an increase for some principals whose staff did not gain an increase in at least one of the years quoted.

Why is there so much secrecy on this matter? It is an absolute disgrace the way in which unelected, unaccountable boards of management are allowed to operate in such secrecy when they deal with public funds and a public asset, which is what the FE sector is. It is time the Scottish Executive stepped in to stop this farce, either through the proposed education committee of the Parliament or the Scottish Further Education Funding Council. Colleges should return to a national framework, with a standard, open package of salary and conditions of service for everyone working in the sector from cleaner to principal.

This single step will go a long way to improve co-operation and collaboration between colleges and, through increased stability for staff, improve the quality of provision for those who participate in FE. Ministers would then fulfil two of their election pledges in one go: remove a series of quangos and improve opportunities for people to participate in lifelong learning.

John Cassidy is the elected teaching staff representative on the board of management at Cardonald College in Glasgow.

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