Life in the college from hell

May 28, 1999

At Wirral Met College, everything that could go wrong did. David Robertson calls for checks on managerial vanity

Recently David Blunkett, secretary of state for education, was forced to replace the governors at Wirral Metropolitan College. He asked me to join a new team of governors to take over the college, pointing out: "This is a difficult one." Three months on, I know just how difficult.

We have inherited a college in which there is no evidence of effective governance or management. If it could go wrong, it did. The rot at the top was total. By the time Mr Blunkett intervened, the college was Pounds 10 million in debt, losing a further Pounds 120,000 monthly, and could not report its student numbers to the nearest 25 per cent. The recent inspection report tersely recorded that "the college has failed to deliver its mission". Management and governance were slated.

In the past three months the new governors have sometimes burst out laughing as each new incompetence is revealed. It is the only way to cope. What is one to make of a situation where, following a calamitously bad performance, the previous governors agreed a Pounds 169,000 retirement package with the outgoing principal? Had those retirement negotiations fallen to the new board, there would have been a radically different outcome.

We are left with the appalling task of rescuing a college from bankruptcy.Appointing a new principal and rescheduling the debt was the easy bit. The horror is yet to come.

Last month we were required to consider making 170 staff redundancies. Having faced redundancy myself over the years, I know how disgraceful it is to contemplate career death because of the incompetence of senior management. Staff unions at Wirral Met rightly make the same point now. At Wirral Met, as elsewhere, if governors do not know what questions to ask, or are too incompetent or compliant, a few principals will run amok with reckless ventures.

So what can be done when chief executives take their institutions on a gigantic ego trip, leaving behind the managerial equivalent of a nail bomb in the form of redundancies and unpaid debts as they head for early retirement?

Government proposes better management and governor training. Maybe - although most principals work hard at institutional administration, one gains the impression that the management knowledge of a minority has been culled from the pages of an in-flight magazine.

Then there are the governors. The current, grossly inadequate legislation protects freedom of managerial action but not the public welfare. Self-nominating governing bodies lead to the cosiness of the golf club. There is the danger that principal and chairman will share an affinity of interest, even a political affinity, which impedes proper judgement.

Government needs to think how the independence of governors can be improved. Appointing a high-level governor from a neighbouring institution might be a way forward in a less competitive environment; allowing a greater academic voice another.

Whatever the solution - and returning to local authority control is not one - checks and balances need to be built in at the local level alongside more skilfully crafted legislation. The price we pay for chief executive vanity is counted in the staff redundancies that follow. And the damage is done by the time the secretary of state intervenes to remove indolent or incompetent governors.

David Robertson is professor of public policy and education, Liverpool John Moores University.

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