Colleges were attacked as unaccountable "self-perpetuating oligarchies" by an influential committee of backbench MPs this week, as ministers began a fundamental review of lifelong learning, writes Phil Baty.
In a tense session with the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration, college chiefs tried to rebut assertions from MPs that colleges were not accountable to local communities.
"College corporations cannot be held to account by local people," said Helen Jones, MP for Warrington North. "The problems indicate that the mechanisms of accountability are not working properly."
Mike Hancock, MP for Portsmouth South, said it was "ridiculous" that local communities had no democratic input in the decision-making process.
Association of Colleges chief executive David Gibson, who gave evidence as part of the committee's inquiry into the accountability of public bodies, emphasised the inclusion of staff, student and community representatives on governing bodies. But Ms Jones said that college governing bodies were "self-perpetuating oligarchies", able to choose their members.
The AoC was attacked for resisting government plans to impose elected representatives from local authorities on governing bodies, by arguing that local councillors brought party politics to college board meetings. "Democracy is about party politics," Ms Jones said.
Ministers' changes to colleges' articles of governance will ensure that at least three elected representatives from local authorities are included on boards. But the MPs hinted that they might recommend a full return to local government control of further education.
"I never saw anything wrong with the pre-incorporation days," said Mr Hancock, who criticised the calibre of governors. "What have been the advantages since the removal of local government control?" In a latter session with the committee, David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, said that the council suffered from a "power gap".
Mr Melville conceded that although ministers had instructed the council to become more interventionist, colleges could ignore the council if push came to shove.