The hunt for a new chief executive of the Association of Colleges was blighted this week by allegations of a potential conflict of interest.
The search for candidates for the £120,000-a-year post is being handled by Imogen Wilde, a senior civil servant at the Department for Education and Skills, on secondment at executive recruitment firm Norman Broadbent. The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards complained that Ms Wilde's position compromised the selection process and raised wider issues about civil servants using their knowledge to help commercial organisations. College principals also expressed concern.
Ms Wilde is director of assessment, curriculum and e-learning at the DFES, where she has spent almost her entire career. She left the DFES for a one-year secondment at Norman Broadbent on December 1 and joined its public-sector recruitment arm in mid-January. At the end of January, she was listed in advertisements for the AoC job as the preliminary contact for applicants, who were invited to call her "for a confidential discussion".
This week, a spokesman for Cafas said: "No one so senior in the DFES should be involved in choosing the head of a body that can discharge its functions only if it is truly independent of the DFES."
Alan Birks, principal of South Birmingham College, said that the AoC needed to take a hard look, in general, at what its purpose was. "There is a danger that it is seen as part of the machinery of government rather than the independent representative of the college sector," he said. "With issues like this, it needs to be clear that it is independent of government."
Other college heads contacted by The THES were reluctant to comment publicly, but a number said that the involvement of a senior DFES official in selecting someone who had to represent the sector, often in opposition to DFES policy, was problematic. "This is bound to cause concern," one college head said.
But others did not agree. Annette Zera, principal of Tower Hamlets College, said: "People are too sad and should find something better to gossip about.
What matters is that we have a strong and determined leadership."
Cafas said it was also concerned about the wider implications of the secondment. "Surely no top civil servant should be making available to a commercial organisation a skill in which there is bound to be some element of special knowledge gained in the public service," the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for the DFES said: "In our view, no conflict of interest arises in relation to Imogen's role as a search consultant. Indeed, it seems to us sensible that she should use her knowledge of the education world to help ensure the best possible field of candidates for the post.
Any decision on appointment would, of course, be for the AoC.
"The secondment was approved within the department on the normal basis for such moves. The contract governing the secondment specifically provides for Norman Broadbent to ensure that Imogen does not play any part in the bidding process for any work that the company seeks from the department or any work in pursuit of a contract that the department awards to the company."
Noorzaman Rashid, managing director of Norman Broadbent, said: "Norman Broadbent was retained by the AoC - prior to Imogen Wilde joining Norman Broadbent - to conduct the advertising, executive search, response handling and analysis of candidate applications components of the recruitment process for their new chief executive. The AoC appointment remains fully under the control of the AoC selection panel at all stages, including the selection criteria and selection of candidates going forward at each stage of the process.
"Imogen Wilde has assisted at various points in the process during her secondment. Norman Broadbent has acted throughout in accordance with industry standards."
Mr Rashid added: "We confirmed with the DFES at the time of appointment that Ms Wilde would not be engaged in DFES appointments so as to avoid any potential conflict of interest. This undertaking has been rigorously adhered to."
The AoC, whose current chief executive, David Gibson, is retiring, will make a final decision on the appointment by March 24.