Let’s work together to agree where the inappropriate spending line is drawn

18 Oct 2019, 11:00

Since FE Week successfully fought to reveal the £150,000 expenses by the principal at Highbury College, the sector reaction has been split.

One college principal told me: “The alcohol, lobster, executive transport, any form of first class travel. The list goes on. It’s inexcusable. It needed to be exposed.

“Signed off or not, it’s an inappropriate use of public funds. Particularly when you think the college is in difficulty.”

But they had been told: “Being vocal might be bad for my career.”

Another principal took a very different view and in the FE Week comments section wrote: “Very good journalism, factually accurate after dogged pursuit.”

But, they also said I was wrong in this editorial column to call for the principal to consider resigning as there was “no breach of rules” and “no suggestion of impropriety/malpractice and the college has confirmed it was all properly authorised”.

Highbury College governors did restrict the use of the corporate card and first class travel in May, but there remain other colleges that will, and have, defended a policy permitting the principal to travel first class at full price.

For a highly respected college principal to conclude “no breach of rules” and so defend the use of a college card on a cocktail-fuelled lobster dinner and £434 headphones should
concern everyone.

Why? Because the spending revelations, particularly the lobster, reached well beyond FE Week readership and made most of the national newspaper and has since been followed up by Private Eye.

And if FE Week had not exposed the spending, the national media would have simply lifted it from the Portsmouth News website.

So, if college principals cannot agree amongst themselves what is appropriate behaviour and expenditure, let’s try and agree through self-regulation.

And let’s move quickly, before the new FE college oversight minister, Lord Agnew, rewrites the rules and or Conditions of Funding Agreement between the Secretary of State and

College leaders from across England should work together to agree, for example, if full cost first class travel is appropriate and as a minimum whether there should be greater transparency of expenditure.

A code of ethics, or ethics charter, could be drafted and then adopted.

This might include, for example, a commitment to publish the details of certain spending as a matter of course.

The media will always try to expose the inappropriate use of public funds – so let’s work together to agree where the line is drawn.

Principals interested in joining a task and finish group to develop such an ethics code or charter can get in touch with me at nick.linford@lsect.com

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  1. Professor Bill Wardle

    In the spirit and context of this discussion, let me state that I think that FE Week has lost the plot here. By all means let ii defend its journalism: but there is a difference between the dogged pursuit of the facts (in the public interest, I agree) and the form of vigilante journalism that pre-judges and hounds individuals. And we know there have been mistakes and catastrophes in this context, including inappropriate, outspoken comments by the FE Commission. Lessons should be learned. Having different parties compete in terms of their spoken outrage hardly sets an objective context: and it produces victims not improvement.

    By no stretch of the imagination should FE Week…and its editor…be the author or arbiter of standards. And, never enforcer. Policies and audit protocols exist in every college. If they are breached, then FE Week then it has the right, even duty, to comment. But it should not set out or calibrate what is acceptable or not.

    All judgement of appropriate spending should be set in context. I doubt if any college principals have travelled ‘First Class’. I imagine there is an agitated confusion with Business Class. And in this context, Civil Service rules for staff of senior grades permit Business Class travel for journeys over a certain duration (4 hours used to be a convention). This is done in the interests of efficiency and performance and I doubt if college practices are out of line here.

    I would appeal for calm perspective, with colleges quietly and professionally reviewing their policies and considering the return on investment in overseas activities etc.

  2. Paul Smith

    Whilst I agree that the first class travel is outrageous, I cannot get over the headphones as there is no justification for that, however I have a bigger issue. My understanding is that the college went to “requires improvement” where was the principal while the college was indecline – it seems to me that she was travelling the world, so who was leading the college?

    I am sure that the press and negativity around the college will only continue whilst she remains in post. For the sake of the students, staff and college she should go. If she really does believe in doing what’s best for the college she should resign and let it have a fresh start.

  3. Justsaying

    Good idea Nick.
    Why don’t you extend the invitation to University Vice-Chancellors!
    I think many of these have been suffering First Class travel ever since Concorde was decommissioned !