College 'sleaze' investigated

May 7, 1999

A ministerial-led clampdown on alleged financial abuse, incompetence and excessive growth in colleges is causing increasing embarrassment to some of the sector's most influential figures, including those closest to the government, writes Phil Baty.

Those facing criticism, or at least scrutiny, include senior members of the Association of Colleges, ministerial advisers and senior Further Education Funding Council officials.

Already government adviser on the New Deal, Jenny Shackleton has faced intense criticism in her role as principal of crisis-hit Wirral Metropolitan College, which she left this year facing Pounds 12 million debts and the worst ever record for teaching quality, governance and management.

Lecturers' union Natfhe this week mounted an attack on Wirral's new chair of governors, John Conlan, who was drafted in to save the college, but who sanctioned many of the earlier financial problems at Wirral as director of the FEFC's North West regional group.

Dennis Turner, Labour MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for further education, has also come under criticism for his role as a governor at Bilston Community College.

He was vice-chair at the time of a financial collapse that will lead to the first ever forced college closure and led this week to a visit to the college from the fraud squad. Mr Turner is also PPS to international development secretary Clare Short.

In addition to the isolated scandals, more top figures are expected to come under general scrutiny or criticism for large-scale franchising, where courses are usually provided outside colleges' localities by outside companies.

In its report on a franchising scandal at Halton College, the FEFC said it would focus attention on colleges with "similar growth characteristics". The FEFC said it is concerned about colleges that have seen "rapid growth, largely attributable to franchised provision" where much is outside a college's "local catchment area".

There is a concern that some colleges, encouraged by previous administrations, expanded too rapidly and cannot guarantee standards or full transparency. Ministers have made it clear that colleges should stick to provision in their localities.

Colleges under scrutiny for excessive franchising include Barnsley College, whose director David Eade is a council member at the FEFC. The college has defended its provision as essential to widening access. Another under scrutiny is Clarendon College, whose principal, Patricia Morgan Webb, was a board member of the Association of Colleges and was recently appointed by ministers to the board of the East Midland Regional Development Agency.

Other franchisers include Barking College, whose chairman of the board of governors is Jim Scrimshaw, who is also chairman of the board of the Association of Colleges. Another is Cornwall College, whose chair, Cairns Boston, is on the Southwest RDA.

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