Funding chiefs have drafted veteran college troubleshooter Terry Melia to probe The THES's revelations that Melton Mowbray College recruited suspected illegal immigrants as students despite warnings from visa officials.
Governors at Melton announced an inquiry into The THES's reports in October, but the Further Education Funding Council has intervened after formal complaints about the college's recruitment of overseas students. Officially, the FEFC is leaving the formal inquiry to the college, but with Melton on the FEFC's danger list of colleges with "weak financial controls", the council has confirmed that it is taking a close interest in the investigation.
Dr Melia, chair of the Further Education Development Agency and former chief inspector of colleges, is on the FEFC's "approved list" of troubleshooters. He chaired the inquiry that recommended the closure of Bilston Community College after a mismanagement scandal.
Dr Melia's investigation has met problems from the outset. Lecturers' union Natfhe has complained that Melton principal Ken Masters and client services manager Chris Eveling were present at a meeting earlier this month to establish Dr Melia's terms of reference. Both men were subject to an overwhelming vote of no confidence from the joint trade unions after The THES's revelations.
"Is it appropriate for those people whose actions are to be investigated to be present at, or to take part in, discussions as to the terms of reference for such an investigation?" Natfhe wrote. "This meeting raises serious questions in relation to the independence and validity of the inquiry."
Natfhe also said it was "disturbed" to hear that the meeting prompted the college's student governor, who was present, to bring a complaint of bullying against Mr Masters. It has also requested that the inquiry not identify any informants. "This reassurance is required because of anxieties expressed by our members and associates concerning the possible victimisation of individuals."
A spokesman for the FEFC said: "The college is conducting an independent investigation, and we have commented on its terms of reference. We are in regular dialogue with the college, and they are sharing information and cooperating with us. We have received allegations, and we are going to monitor the situation very closely. We will wait for the result of the college's investigation before we decide on any further action."
The THES has also learnt that Mr Masters's wife, Jill Masters, is employed as a full-time clerk, responsible for expenditure, in the college's finance department.
The college board of governors will make no further comment until the investigation is complete. The results will be made public.
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