The government’s drive for colleges to focus on helping the economy goes against their “lawful purpose” of meeting the needs of learners, a governance expert has warned.

Fiona Chalk, national head of governance development for The Education and Training Foundation, told an FE Week webcast this morning there is an “inherent tension” between the two goals.

“It is colleges’ lawful purpose to meet the needs of students first and foremost,” Chalk said, and “you could argue that it is not a lawful activity for college corporations to have, as their primary purpose, meeting the needs of employers or indeed the local or national economy.

“Any benefit to employers or the economy has to come as an indirect outcome of corporations’ activity around meeting the needs of its students.”

Chalk, alongside the Association of Colleges’ governance adviser Kurt Hall, and lawyer Mark Taylor from Eversheds Sutherland, was speaking on the fourth chapter of the Skills for Jobs white paper.

The chapter sets out reforms intended to “strengthen” college governance, within the paper’s overall objective of “placing employers at the heart of defining local skills needs”.

Colleges operate as exempt charities, so for instance, do not have to submit accounts to the Charity Commission, but do have to apply to them if they wish to remunerate governors.

Under the white paper’s plans, employer bodies such as Chambers of Commerce are set to head Local Skills Improvement Plans, which will “shape technical skills provision so that it meets local labour market skills needs”.

Chalk, whose employer the ETF is one of government’s most trusted delivery partners in the FE sector, said she expected there to be “some synergies” between helping students and employers, but warned: “There’s a real, inherent tension here.”

A number of chairs, including for colleges focusing on sport, or which are “heavily involved” in creative industries, or which have “huge” adult learning provision have already been in touch with her, she said.

They are worried that “although they may be meeting the needs of their students under charity law, what happens if they’re not sufficiently fulfilling the local skills improvement plans?

“Does that mean they’re going to be under intervention?”

The Department for Education’s director of post-16 strategy Keith Smith confirmed during an FE Week webcast earlier this month an upcoming Skills Bill, based on the white paper, will enable the education secretary to intervene where colleges refuse to deliver courses decided through the plans.

But, Chalk questioned: “Which duty trumps which duty? Which voice in the boardroom is going to be louder, that of students or that of employers?”

She was backed up by Taylor, who said the government “is giving colleges a different mission, so how does that fit with that existing charity and its duties?”

“It’s even more complicated than that though,” he advised, as although governors “have an obligation to further the objects of the college, nobody tells them what those objects are.

“You actually have to look at what the statutory powers of a college are, and guess what their charitable objects are, which isn’t ideal at the moment, but this could make things even more complicated.”