There is a long and strong tradition in this country of "voluntary" public service. That must be a good thing. However there does appear to be some muddled thinking in the debate concerning governor remuneration in further and higher education. Times have changed and some traditions also need to change with them.
Sir Geoffrey Holland, a person of considerable stature in public life, has, it seems to me, overstated and indeed misrepresented the case to be made for some form of remuneration for governors of colleges. When he appeared recently before the Nolan committee on standards in public life, Sir Geoffrey, former permanent secretary at both the Departments of Education and Employment and now vice chancellor of Exeter University, is quoted as saying: "These people give a good deal of their time and deserve expenses but not a salary. We trade on their goodwill but it would be a great mistake to move towards a professional paid class." Later on he conceded there was a case for considering payment to school governing bodies but "much less of a case" in further and higher education. Why does he hold this appparently inconsistent view?
I suspect most people, myself included, would strongly resist any "move towards a professional paid class" or indeed any notion that people should be attracted to serve on governing bodies by an incentive of payment. But surely this misses the point. Over the past few years, and particularly since incorporation, the powers, duties and responsibilities governors of further education colleges have changed out of all recognition compared with the protected and sometimes rather limp involvement required when colleges were under local authority control. The commitment and the expertise required of governors of "new" colleges is huge.
"These people" need to be skilled, trained and constantly updated. In order to attract and retain governors of the calibre that is necessary we must have regard for their "working conditions" and be able to attract people from a very wide parish. No longer is it possible to govern colleges effectively on the basis of collecting together local worthies prepared to waffle their way through an agenda that is now very complex but also highly charged with financial, educational, political and personnel implications. The strategy and the solvency of many of our colleges are among our principal responsibilities and this is no mean task with many millions of pounds of public money and the education and training of our people at stake.
Keith Scribbins, chair of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, says: "I would balance the need to parti-cipate of those who are self-employed and would lose income, those in lowly jobs, or with child care needs, against the inappropriateness of having people coming forward for money."
That balance I believe to be crucial. Where lies the logic in not allowing a self-employed fee earner some compensation for loss of earnings while engaged on college business but at the same time rewarding the chairman and members of the Further Education Funding Council, a number of whom are principals and chief executives (and governors) of the colleges we as lay governors are responsible for monitoring and governing? This and other inconsistencies are quite bizarre and will, if retained lead to a decline in the quality of governors.
Tony Corder is chair of the corporation of the College of North East London.