The watchdog gets a sharper set of teeth

June 11, 1999

The short-lived experiment with college autonomy has largely failed, ministers appear to have concluded.

Barely six years since colleges were incorporated - liberated from the control of local government - ministers are giving the Further Education Funding Council tough new powers of intervention.

But while the concept of institutional autonomy is less entrenched in colleges than in higher education, moves to curb college freedom have been fiercely resisted.

Ministers ignored loud objections from the Association of Colleges last year and insisted on a raft of measures to make colleges more accountable.

Despite majority opposition to ministers' plans to strip business leaders of their controlling interest on college governing bodies, rules of governance are to be introduced in August, following the 1998 consultation paper, Accountability in Further Education.

Business leaders will make up a third and not a half of the governing body. Community groups, parents and locally elected representatives will get greater representation.

But less than six months after consulting on these changes and redrafting college's instruments and articles of government, ministers have gone much further.

Amid persistent complaints that the FEFC had often sat back impotently during the numerous college financial scandals, ministers have agreed it is time to curb college freedom.

Last month, following financial scandals at Bilston, Halton and Wirral colleges, ministers announced plans to allow the FEFC to take over college audits of student numbers, where there is cause for concern. They have also moved to force colleges to disclose detailed financial information on foreign travel and hospitality to the FEFC.

But with the most controversial challenge to autonomy, the FEFC will also be empowered to nominate its own governors and observers to college boards. Up to two FEFC-appointed governors can be installed on college boards, whenever the FEFC "considers it necessary".

The AoC is seeking urgent clarification about what this means.

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