FEFC to police itself

February 10, 1995

The Further Education Funding Council has launched its own bid to prove to the public that quangos should not be synonymous with secrecy and sleaze.

Its chairman and chief executive have agreed to appear at the Nolan committee which is investigating standards in public life. In a move pre-empting the inquiry's possible recommendations, it is consulting widely on plans to police itself in three areas: corporate responsibility, individual conduct and access to information.

The proposed code of conduct formalises principles the FEFC says it has followed since it was formed in 1992, although there is widespread feeling its conduct is not the real problem in the sector and the focus should be on better guidance for individual colleges. The codes include a detailed internal process for handling complaints with final recourse to an external ombudsman.

They suggest an annual shareholder-style meeting, a formal system for written answers to questions and a register of senior staff and members' interests. The code of individual conduct states: "As a general guide, members should not take any action which cannot be publicly explained." Committee minutes would become more readily available, but the proposals stop short of holding meetings in public because "such arrangements would lead to less effective decision-making".

The FEFC explains: "Making meetings open may put pressure on council members to act as if they were representative of particular interest groups, thereby making it more difficult for members to bring an objective view to bear on the issues which they consider."

John Brennan, policy director of the Association for Colleges, welcomed the proposals but called for broader issues to be addressed. The AFC has set up its own working party to advise on good practice for governors in the light of critical FEFC reports into Wilmorton College, Derby, and St Philip's Sixth Form College, Birmingham.

"We see the need for a wider statement which covers the position of colleges on issues which keep coming up of conflicts of interest and the openness of decision-making procedures," said Mr Brennan.

However, not a single call to the Natfhe "whistle-blowers' hotline" - set up three months ago to monitor concerns about sleaze in the sector - has alleged FEFC malpractice.

Dan Taubman of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, said the most frequent whistle-blowers' concern was alleged bad governance. "We have had a number of calls about the blanket use of the confidentiality clause on staff governors and also concerns about governors' collective responsibility," he said.

Natfhe intends to publish its own guide for university governors shortly, followed by one for colleges.

The FEFC proposals go further than the Higher Education Funding Council's Code of Best Practice, agreed in December. This stressed similar corporate and individual responsibilities for members but did not extend to complaints procedures or access to information. Neither is the HEFCE due to appear before Lord Nolan, although the FEFC's appearance is said to be representative of a high-spending quango.

FEFC chief executive Sir William Stubbs said: "It is to see how the council goes about its work. It will start from saying how can the public have confidence in you - that is its area of concern."

He acknowledged the proposed codes did not address wider concerns. "It is really the council, after nearly two years in operation, saying how can we make things more open, how can we make it work even better.

"It is not a derivative of the Derby Wilmorton and St Philip's reports although people may see some of what the council's recommending for itself, if applied inside colleges, might have advantages. We have set up a series of meetings with representatives of the various bodies in the FE sector to examine the findings of the Wilmorton and St Philip's reports. It is hoped that by Easter we will have refined the messages of what the council and the sector might together do to improve matters."

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