College clerks tread carefully

Wed, 20 Jun 2012 12:14:00 BST

FE clerks adopt cautious approach to new found freedom of 2011 Education Act

...according to a recent University/Eversheds study

FE college

HOW will FE colleges respond to the new and unprecedented freedom of manoeuvre that they were granted by the 2011 Education Act? Will they embrace the opportunities on offer, by creating slimmed-down “corporate” governing bodies and even seeking opportunities to attract private finance? Or will they opt for more modest changes to governance arrangements. Either way, it will be essential for every corporation to thoroughly evaluate the new opportunities so as to make an informed decision about whether constitutional change can be used to enhance its ability to achieve strategic objectives.

A research project launched by the University of Huddersfield Business School and Eversheds Solicitors aimed to gauge the initial reaction of the FE sector to the changes, particularly in the area of college governance.

Dr Ron Hill, who is the clerk to the governing bodies of two colleges in Yorkshire, and a visiting research fellow in the University of Huddersfield Business School, is in no doubt about the potentially seismic nature of the changes.

“Usually in publicly funded institutions the government provides a set of rules and you have to work to them.  But now FE colleges are being encouraged to think and act like private companies.”

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The research project was quick to get off the mark early in 2012 by despatching an online questionnaire to 332 FE colleges – virtually every one in England. Clerks to the Corporation were asked whether or not there were plans to alter their governance structures and procedures.

The response was very good, with 119 replies but so far there are few signs of a big bang in the FE sector.

“We are finding that clerks – who are governance advisers – are quickly building their understanding of what the new freedoms will permit, identifying for themselves issues for their governing body to consider,” says Ron Hill.  The main focus of change is adoption of the Foundation Code of Governance with most respondents informing that their governing bodies will be considering adopting the voluntary code by 31 July 2012.  In addition, and perhaps more importantly, 39% of respondents considered that their governing body was likely to take advantage of significantly varying the Instrument and Articles of Government in the next twelve months.  The University of Huddersfield and Eversheds Solicitors are committed to a follow up survey to track the degree of change in the FE sector.

Says Julie Drake of the University of Huddersfield’s Financial Ethics and Governance Research Group: “Governors are asking, ‘what will it mean for me and how will these changes affect my role as a college governor?”

Ron Hill advises that college governing bodies must carefully consider any proposed changes to governance structures and/or procedures.  It is critical to retain the strengths of good college governance rather than change for the sake of change.  Ultimately, the big question for college governing bodies is the impact that any governance changes will make on educational standards and the college experience for learners.

Diane Gilhooley, Eversheds’ Education Sector Head, says: “In all cases it is vital for colleges to focus on their strategic objectives in the first instance, before moving on to look at which of the new opportunities for change may be relevant.  She added that it is essential that any changes, whether minor modernisations or more radical changes to structure, are right for the college and carefully considered.”

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