Funder threat to college freedom

August 14, 1998

COLLEGE autonomy is under threat as the Further Education Funding Council said this week that it wants powers to intervene in the running of colleges.

The FEFC has told the government that its powers are not always "sufficient" to safeguard the Pounds 3 billion of public money spent in 443 independent college corporations and the accountability framework does not always allow it to "fully discharge its own accountability to Parliament".

In its response to the government's proposals for increasing college accountability, the FEFC said that it should be given the power to appoint its own representatives to governing bodies to force proper action if public funds are under threat through mismanagement or corruption.

FEFC chief executive David Melville has said that these FEFC appointees may have power to veto decisions made by other governors.

The FEFC repeated its call for more power in its response to the government's "fundamental review" of the further and higher education funding councils.

It is understood that similar proposals for greater inverventionist powers for the Higher Education Funding Council for England are being looked at as part of the review. They would face huge resistance from a sector with a longer tradition of autonomy and where vice-chancellors are accountable to Parliament.

The FEFC, like HEFCE, only has powers of guidance. It inspects provision and publishes results but cannot force action on governing bodies. It cannot call a meeting of governors. Beyond the FEFC's powers, the secretary of state can intervene in the most extreme cases, to remove whole governing bodies.

Professor Melville said there has been an "accountability gap". "When colleges get themselves into difficulties they can be unable or unwilling to respond," he said.

He said that college autonomy, just five years old, had been a "great success. But autonomy is shifting a little as the new government wants to see accountability to local communities".

The proposals for greater powers are supported by the Commons Public Accounts Committee and the Commons Select Committee for Education, but are likely to meet resistance from colleges. Marcia Roberts, director of professional services at the Association of Colleges said: "We do not believe that additional power should be given to the FEFC. To do so would be to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

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