UK: BIM Sounding Board - Further education challenge.

UK: BIM Sounding Board - Further education challenge. - In 1993, FE and sixth form colleges will change to corporate status. BIM members should say "Yes" if asked to be governors.

by John Crosby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In 1993, FE and sixth form colleges will change to corporate status. BIM members should say "Yes" if asked to be governors.

Most Management Today readers are already aware of the recent elevation of polytechnic colleges to university status. Less well publicised to date, however, has been the planned transfer (in April 1993) of further education and sixth form colleges from local authority control to their own independent, corporate status - yet these are the institutions which most directly serve the training needs of public and private sector organisations in terms of a wide range of vocational skills and qualifications. Additionally, by their sheer number and tradition of community identification, they are the major channel through which employers can most influence the post-schools educational service.

Inherent in all the discussions to date is the belief that a college's freedom to order its own affairs will lead to heightened quality standards, major economies of operation and more student places. What is not so clearly realised is the near-revolutionary nature of the changes in colleges' modus vivendi and in the discretion of their governing bodies. Regionally-based funding councils will replace local authorities as the source of public funding for all full and part-time provisions for adults, although colleges will continue to receive money from Training and Education Councils (TECs) in respect of work-related further experience programmes and will have an increased ability to run profit-oriented programmes.

Under the new arrangements, governing bodies will have between 12 and 20 members of which at least 50% must be nominated by employment interests. While there will no longer be formal local government representation, up to 2 elected members or employees of the local authority can be appointed as co-opted members. The balance of membership will be drawn from representatives of the community, college staff, college students or co-operating educational institutions.

Governing bodies will be required to determine a college's corporate objectives, the type and balance of courses to be offered, organisation structure, staffing levels, overall remuneration policy, and expenditure priorities within budget. For the first time, longer-term planning beyond a given financial year will be possible as colleges will be able to retain and apply surpluses from one year to another. In parallel with these powers, governors will have a duty to monitor performance, standards and expenditure, ensure that college premises are maintained and meet legislative requirements in employment, health and safety and other areas.

Overall, these changes can be warmly commended from BIM members' viewpoint, but I believe that there should be no question of justifying the removal of local authority control by downrating the past. Whilst no doubt a small number of colleges have "suffered" from unsympathetic or politically divided councils, or from unhelpful town hall staff, my soundings suggest that such experience is exceptional. In the case of my own college there has been a long tradition of co-operation, commitment and positive support from both elected local authority members and employees.

I feel it safe therefore to predict that many colleges will wish to take up the option of inviting local councillors to occupy up to 2 of the places available on their new governing body as a practical recognition of their special experience and skills and because of the desirability of some element of local accountability. Most colleges have already instituted a search committee to identify additional governors from the employment field. At one level this is to meet the "not less than 50% rule" but, more fundamentally, to identify persons who can contribute both at the transitional stage and then in the ongoing work of their institution.

A key task for governors will be to define the raison d'etre of the institution. Unless the new funding councils specify programme expectations in greater detail than is anticipated, a college could in future be tempted to widen its geographical market at the expense of local and special needs. Equally, it could focus excessive attention on high profit yielding programmes at the expense of low yielding ones which are important to employers.

Regardless of the "balance of power" questions which will have to be resolved, the choice between either serving the requirements of (primarily) a funding council or of running an institution on a profit maximisation basis only is not a tempting one for busy external managers. This is why there is a need not only for governors' strategic guidance and overall supervision but for their contribution to the formulation of a realistic operating code with community accountabilities at its core.

Ironically, whenever a good idea is recognised its application becomes so wide that very heavy demands are made on available resources. In this sense, FE colleges will be competing with schools, universities, 95 TECs and Scottish equivalents for management support. Similarly, a good idea often reaches implementation at the wrong time in a business or economic cycle: certainly at a time when managers are fighting for the survival of their businesses it is not ideal to urge them to increase their external commitments. However, I hope that BIM members will say "yes" if approached by a search committee. The work of a governor is already interesting and rewarding: it will become much more so in future. With our help, potential major improvements in both the quality, quantity and relevance of further education services to the public and private sector can be realised which will contribute significantly to the UK's long term economic well-being.

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