Colleges have been told to think critically about the diversity of their governing boards, but what might that mean when set against the backdrop of an encroaching private sector dominated by rich, old, white, able-bodied men, asks Mick Fletcher.

The recently-published report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on college governance is in many ways a model of how to develop policy.

Unlike many announcements, which appear out of the blue and seem only to reflect the uninformed opinions of a handful of policy wonks, this report shows signs of having involved serious and sustained collaboration, both with the sector and with the Charitiy Commission.

Moreover, at a time when the phrase ‘evidence-based policy’ is falling into disrepute, this publication draws extensively on independent evidence from bodies like Learning and Skills Improvement Service and the Women’s Leadership Network. The BIS team that led the review are to be congratulated.

In practice, employer ownership of skills means rich, old, white, male, able-bodied ownership of skills.”

It may seem churlish therefore to draw attention to a flaw within their work, but it is one that seems substantial.

The review seeks to deal with college governance in isolation from all the other changes occurring in the skills system and to the role of colleges.

The assumption seems to be that the place of colleges is fundamentally unchanged by the turbulence in the external policy environment and the transformation that government, and particularly BIS, is trying to bring about.

A couple of examples will illustrate the problem.

The first concerns the important question of whether college boards reflect the diversity of the actual and potential populations they serve.

Evidence is produced which makes clear they fall short and there are sensible recommendations as to what they might do about it.

However, at the same time as BIS is discussing the composition of college governing bodies it is also seeking to transfer funding from colleges to employers under the guise of ‘employer ownership of skills’.

One thing we can be certain about is that, in practice, employer ownership of skills means rich, old, white, male, able-bodied ownership of skills.

It is possible to see the potential impact of such a transfer in the figures for apprenticeships.

That part of the skills system where employers are most clearly in the driving seat is (and not by co-incidence) that part that least reflects the diversity of the UK population.

This is not to say colleges shouldn’t try to do more to make their boards more representative. They should.

It is, however, to argue that to the extent funding is transferred to employers, the composition of college boards has less and less significance.

The second example arises from the discussion of whether board members should be paid.

The review seems to assume that colleges should maintain their status as exempt charities, and concludes that, as with other charities, payment should be the exception.

This seems to ignore the drift of government policy which is slowly, but surely towards the privatisation of FE.

Exempt charity status seems quite appropriate for a public body that receives grant in aid to support its programmes.

As part of civil society it is right to expect individuals to help lead a college without reward, and for the representativeness of its board to be part of democratic accountability.

However, colleges are now officially part of the private sector and the thrust of BIS policy in particular is towards an open and free market where colleges are simply one set of providers among many who compete with other private bodies to win contracts.

If this really is to be the nature of the sector, then it makes more sense for colleges to be regulated by company law than charity law, and to pay their non-execs as well as companies do.

It also means they need worry less about accountability and select their board members simply with regard to efficiency.

There will still be pragmatic arguments for diversity, but it seems likely that over time the boards of privatised colleges would come to resemble those of private companies.

None of this is to say that within its own terms, the review of governance is a poor piece of work.

It is, as argued at the outset, well-researched, well-argued and thoughtful.

The danger is, however, that unless BIS looks at the overall impact of the changes it is driving through, rather than a narrow focus on colleges, the recommendations may prove to be better-suited to yesterday than tomorrow.

Mick Fletcher is an FE Consultant

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