Conflict of interest group’s no show

Plans for a Skills Funding Agency-led panel to investigate potential conflicts of interest where awarding organisations also deliver education have been shelved, FE Week can reveal.

The government said in January that a task-and-finish group was being “convened” following an 11-month review by the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee.

But it has now emerged that the group, which would also have had representatives from Ofqual, the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and BIS, never formed.

A spokesperson from the agency, which is responsible for NAS, said: “The agency and Ofqual have a close working relationship and meet on a regular basis, therefore it was decided that this process which already exists across the two organisations would be sufficient.”

A BIS spokesperson said the government was content the work needed was being done in existing groups, but a separate group could yet be launched.

However, BIS Select Committee chair Adrian Bailey, said: “The government made a specific commitment to set up this task-and-finish group to examine the issue [of conflicts of interest].

“I will be making enquiries to find out why it has not materialised and will put any response and the evidence acquired by FE Week to the select committee with a view to taking further action on it.”

Mr Bailey’s committee had said in November that it was not “desirable for training providers and awarding bodies to be owned by the same group or individuals”.

Three months later, the government announced the task-and-finish group, saying: “The work will start with a review of those awarding organisations, predominantly, where there are instances of vertical integration with a training arm.”

Jon Richards, UNISON national secretary for education and children’s services, said the union was “very surprised” the government had not set the group up.

“History is littered with examples of organisations that failed to separate similar conflicts of interests between provider and producer,” he said.

“It’s always the consumer — in this case the learner — who loses out, as the organisation prioritises its own interests.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We have worked with the agency to understand the risks associated with potential conflicts of interests … and the controls that are in place to manage such circumstances. We continue to work closely with them and other agencies.”

Meanwhile, Ofqual’s 18-month investigation into Pearson, which produces learning materials and hands out awards as Edexcel, concluded last month.

The report found new measures introduced by Pearson were “sufficient” to “mitigate the risks… to an acceptable level”.

A Pearson spokesperson said the changes the company had made “give further reassurance that we operate fairly and appropriately.”