Codes and caveats for governing class

February 24, 1995

Barely two months old, this year is already proving to be quite a year for governors. The past few weeks have seen four significant publications - two from the National Audit Office on financial management and severance deals, one from the Further Education Funding Council on the conduct of its business and, finally, one from the Colleges Employers' Forum on a model code of conduct for corporation members.

In one way or another these documents advise governors on how to be good - to act with efficiency and responsibility in respect of their custodianship of billions of pounds of public money.

And if this was not enough, last week the Secretary of State for Education exercised her power to remove the governors at Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, because of mismanagement "for which the governing body bears a collective responsibility".

This is serious stuff - almost unprecedented in the world of quangos. Here we have unpaid representatives of the nation's local communities, moved only by a commitment to public duty, being told after nearly two years in office how to do it right and being presented with an example of what will happen if they do it wrong.

It is hard to resist the findings of any of the four recent publications. The NAO reports generally give a clean bill of heath to the sector. On financial management only a minority of colleges had problems in establishing controls over spending. On severance deals "the evidence to date does not indicate that severance payments are being used unreasonably".

You would not think it from recent press coverage but both reports, having tried hard to find something wrong, conclude that there are no grounds for general accusations of sleaze and mismanagement.

The FEFC document makes fascinating reading - setting out proposed codes on corporate responsibility, on individual conduct for council members and on access to information. These codes are an exercise in two things.

First, they seek to pre-empt external control by advertising self-regulation.

Second, they throw up a model for how governors in the wider system should behave. The theme is "accountability means openness" although, as critics have already pointed out, not too much openness.

The FEFC rejects the idea that its meetings should be open to the press and the public.

And, finally, the sector's representative body, CEF, offers up its own recipe for transparent operations and the achievement of propriety. It proposes a code of conduct for governors including a register of members' interests.

So there you have it. In a little under two weeks, two audit reports proclaim that there is something a little rotten in the state of governance of further and higher education. The Government and the funding councils act to remedy the problems. The rest of us are taught lessons about how not to get into trouble.

If the past two years have been the years of entrepreneurialism the next two might be the years of probity and self regulation. Whether enough has been done to appease a future Labour government, as opposed to the present Tory one, remains to be seen.

Keith Scribbins is chair of governors at South Bristol College.

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