Ministers have vowed to streamline the arduous process of approving high-end principal salaries, as colleges fume over “unacceptable” lengthy delays impacting the recruitment of leaders.
Bosses have slammed the bureaucracy involved in applying for government permission to hire senior staff with a pay package of £150,000 or more through a process which is causing waiting times of up to five months, FE Week has learned.
Following reclassification to the public sector in late 2022, colleges are required to get permission from the Department for Education and then the chief secretary to the Treasury for pay of £150,000 and above.
The threshold comprises of base salary, fees, pension in excess of normal levels and benefits in kind. Colleges also now need to get permission to award bonuses of more than £17,500.
Colleges face a penalty of up to five times the remuneration package if they breach strict new rules, which includes posting a job advertisement with an unapproved salary, appointing a candidate without pay approval, and announcing an appointment without a government-approved pay package.
The DfE has admitted that the assessment is taking longer than it planned and told FE Week it will attempt to “streamline” the process.
“We are mindful of the issues that this may cause for some providers and remain actively engaged with those awaiting decisions,” a DfE spokesperson said. “We are also working to streamline the assessment process and plan to update guidance on this in due course.”
But for multiple colleges that have already had principal vacancies since reclassification, governing boards have waded through confusing guidance and lengthy periods of radio silence from the government, all whilst trying to appoint candidates.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: “The length of time it is taking is unacceptable and is leading to problems in recruitment for the small number of colleges seeking permission.
“We are chasing the DfE on those in the pipeline. It is a new process, meaning that everyone is learning about how it works, with each case going to the education secretary before it goes onto the Treasury for the chief secretary to make the final decision.”
Hughes told his members that education secretary Gillian Keegan also “often asks” colleges “for more information before making a decision”, which delays the process even further.
‘Stalemate’ with government
Last July, DfE updated its guidance on senior pay, which states that applications for £150,000 approval will take a minimum of two months to assess.
The guidance says colleges should file a pro forma application, asking for salary approval as soon as they are aware of an upcoming senior vacancy that meets the £150,000 threshold or the £17,500 bonus payment.
Exceptions that don’t need Treasury approval include colleges that can prove a “significant material burden” if they don’t rapidly hire multiple senior employees, or colleges that wish to propose the same remuneration package for future appointments “for a specific timeframe”.
The government has been accused of making up the guidance “as they go” by some sources, as it encourages colleges to get Treasury approval first before advertising for the job to “avoid delays and potential embarrassment when dealing with potential candidates”.
But officials also tell colleges they can get around the rules by advertising a vacancy without specifying the salary.
Sources say the latter method doesn’t guarantee a speedier process because the government will want to know the justification for offering a salary package to a certain candidate.
They also told FE Week the delays cause potential candidates to end up in a “stalemate” as they cannot give notice to their current employer without agreeing on the terms with their new employer, including on salary, all the while the college is waiting for the green light from the government.
Seek permission ASAP
The pro forma application asks colleges to fill out information about the proposed recruitment timetable, a job description, college workforce size and budget, salary specification and any negotiating flexibility on salary.
There is also ample space in the document to fill in a four-part justification for the proposed salary package and a box to fill in the views of the departmental minister.
Some colleges encountered problems immediately when submitting the form. The form needs a signature from the chair of governors, which is not stated in the guidance.
These rules could well affect at least one-third of college principals, who are earning at least £150,000, according to 2022 college accounts data.
John Evans, principal of Cornwall College, said he has given governors extra notice to step down to mitigate the delays in appointing his successor and allow for a handover.
“[The handover] is not going to be possible I don’t think, because it could take 18 weeks. That’s four and a half months before we can even agree a salary,” he told FE Week.
“Having just entered the process, it does seem bureaucratic. We have been warned it could be it could be long-winded. I think it’s important to get that out there and because all this has an impact on the quality of education for our students.”
Hughes has “strongly advised” colleges to seek permission as soon as possible to allow for the “extremely” slow process.
He added that the AoC is pressing for a set of benchmarks within which colleges are “safe to proceed” because the £150,000 cap is “simply too low for medium and large colleges and it will result in about half of colleges clogging up the education secretary’s red box”.