College leaders are seeking urgent clarification of ministers' plans to rein in college autonomy with unprecedented new powers of intervention for the Further Education Funding Council, writes Phil Baty.
Among a raft of measures designed to crackdown on fraud and malpractice in colleges announced by ministers last week are plans to empower the FEFC to appoint its own governors to college boards, and to parachute in observers and assessors to scrutinise governors' meetings.
Some college sources fear the government is making policy "on the hoof", as ministers appeared to reject these exact proposals less than six months ago.
Ministers outlined initial plans to make colleges more accountable in December last year, with its document, Accountability in Further Education. During consultation at the time, the FEFC lobbied for interventionist powers, but ministers stopped short of recommending them. Following that consultation, measures will be introduced in August this year, which include statutory registers of interest and codes of practice, and the restructuring of governing bodies to reduce business influence and increase local accountability.
While broadly welcoming measures to prevent malpractice, the Association of Colleges is concerned that "a number of questions have not been answered". "The government did not want to take these measures up previously, but it has now brought it forward. It is not at all clear what is intended," said John Brennan, the AoC's policy director.
Last week ministers said the FEFC will be able to appoint two of its own governors on college boards and impose observers "when it considers it to be necessary". But the college sector wants clearly defined criteria.
There are also question marks over the legal position. "The procedural aspects are very unclear," said Dr Brennan. The FEFC currently has no formal powers to intervene short of recommending the dismissal of governors.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said detailed implementation plans were being drafted.