Big Brother FEFC? Please don't do it

August 28, 1998

I have a friend who had an enemy. The enemy was about to marry a woman whom my friend admired. He launched a campaign including adverts in The Times under the slogan "Don't Do It, Freda!" This story came back to me when I read the Further Education Funding Council's submission responding to a Department for Education and Employment consultation document on accountability. Will colleges be inclined to run a campaign under the slogan "Don't Do It, Mr Blunkett"? To be fair to the FEFC, it does say that it proposes three new powers for itself only with reluctance.

The first power is to nominate assessors to college governing bodies. Second is the power of direction over proper use of public finds and compliance with articles and instruments. Third is the power to appoint a number of governors to a college for a specified purpose.

These proposals raise two questions: are these powers necessary, and who should exercise them? The first question has two answers. First possible answer is the panic engendered by the perennial revelation of scandals in the operation of colleges and universities. There have been about 20 of these in the past ten years. Some involve frauds, some incompetent management and some failures of governance. But whatever their cause, they have affected only a handful of nearly 600 institutions in further and higher education combined.

The second answer is more immediate. The select committee dropped a rock in the pool of the DFEE's consultation on accountability. It said the FEFC had a role in ensuring probity in the sector, that its powers of intervention should be clarified and strengthened and that it should intervene at the first danger signal.

The committee did receive a number of worrying submissions, including the scandal of former Association of Colleges chief executive Roger Ward who misled it over the existence of an AoC register of interests. But the frank truth is that the committee panicked. There is no evidence that greater regulation inspires greater virtue. The truth is the reverse. The history of our public bodies shows that the more you put control over them in the hands of civil servants and officers of quangos, the more they refrain from taking responsibility for their own quality and responsiveness to the public. If there is a Big Brother, you do not need to worry about being good because you will always be told when you are bad.

Lord Nolan saw a different way. His committee clearly felt that unfettered incorporation caused a problem, that the ethics of the market could dominate the ethics of public duty. His answer was self-regulation. The evidence is that this is working and the FEFC has done a lot to contribute to it, advocating codes, a clearer role for the clerk and self-assessment. Do we need more regulation? No, what we need is better self-regulation.

If, in spite of this, we are still to have more external regulation, who should do it? The answer is not the FEFC. If it is to regulate governance, except by inspection, it becomes the guardian of public duty. It ceases to be a quango. It becomes a police force, and soon someone will ask who guards the guards. If we need a body at all it must, like similar councils and commissions, be composed of governors plus some independent members to give an "internal" and an "external" view. Finally, one can quite see why the FEFC shows reluctance in proposing more powers for itself. For none of this chimes with its philosophy of inspection. This states that financially robust colleges with high-quality achievements should become self-accrediting. To advocate, simultaneously, more regulatory powers for itself is giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Don't do it Mr Blunkett!

Keith Scribbins is a consultant in education management and governance.

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