Educational Notes: Fraud and scandal in further education

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The Independent Culture
THE CLICHE that truth is stranger than fiction certainly applies to Halton College, Cheshire, and to my six crime novels set in or around further education. Anyone working in further education during the last decade would have been able to predict fraud - if not quite on the Halton scale, currently assessed at pounds 7.3m.

Until 1993, further education colleges, like schools, were run and regularly audited by local education authorities. For a variety of reasons - making FE more accountable and more efficient were two of them - the Conservative government "incorporated" colleges, giving them self-management and funds from the Further Education Funding Council. The FEFC immediately set completely unrealistic recruitment, retention and achievement targets, with penalties for those colleges which couldn't meet them.

Not that many colleges seem to be afraid of the FEFC. Forty-three per cent of colleges do not submit their audits of student data on time. Some 70 per cent of colleges with budgets in excess of pounds 20m do not submit their data on time. So public funds are being allocated on the basis of very unreliable figures. Some of the data required from students is almost uncollectable. This is a matter which the FEFC itself should address. Considering it is supposed to oversee colleges it seems to have remarkably little understanding of the difficulties of day-to-day college life.

Many honest, decent college managers must have had enormous difficulty making the transition from public to quasi-private sector. A significant few set out to make personal hay while the financial sun shone. While squeezing the teaching staff to the limit with draconian new contracts and "restructuring" (i.e. pay cuts and redundancies) very few principals - now styling themselves chief executives! - shared their financial misery. No, they persuaded their boards of governors (largely drawn from the supposedly financially astute business community) that principals deserved new contracts too. Theirs tended to include huge salaries, big cars and massive severance deals.

Scandals have abounded: the Midlands college with debts of up to pounds 10m; the college that bought a night-club. One chief executive's office was in the West Indies: he communicated with his staff by e-mail. Another is alleged to have run a pub while on sick leave. Six per cent of college principals sign their own travel claims. One even sat on the committee determining his own pension.

Personal greed is bad enough. But bullying tactics have reinforced this self- aggrandisement. Stress levels have rocketed amongst teaching staff - far worse-paid than schoolteachers, by the way. And - lest you ask why whistle-blowing by lecturers is comparatively rare - consider the cash- strapped college that could none the less afford a surveillance camera focused on the trades union notice board. Indeed, in many lecturers' contracts, criticising management constitutes gross misconduct - a sacking offence.

In the midst of this, there is another group that no one seems to be considering. The students. Something has to be sacrificed in order to pay for the principals' junketings. If the Halton Principal has, as is reported, pounds 30,000-worth of "etchings", what is the Halton library like? Are the books up-to-date? Are there enough class textbooks? Do the OHPs work? Are the labs properly equipped? Is there enough money to maintain a decent, healthy environment?

I set my Sophie Rivers books against this backdrop. Although, amongst other things, I write about fraud, I dare not invent anything as "hardboiled" as the real-life pain and injustice caused largely by financial mismanagement. Readers simply would not believe me. In this case, truth is far worse than fiction. Fraud is not a victimless crime. The ones who pay are the students.

Judith Cutler is the author of `Dying to Score' (Headline, pounds 16.99)