Six colleges face financial inquiry

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AN INVESTIGATION has been launched into the funding of courses at six further education colleges, as the Government announced tighter controls over spending.

The review comes after Halton College in Cheshire was found to have claimed excess fees of pounds 6.4m from the Government. Halton's management was severely criticised by the National Audit Office and the college was ordered to repay the fees.

Officials refused to name the colleges involved in the six new inquiries, which have been ordered by Professor David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council. But they are known to be looking at colleges which, like Halton, expanded rapidly through courses run under franchise.

The news came as the Government announced tighter controls on college spending and inspectors produced the fifth damning report into a further education college to be published this year.

Inspectors criticised management at Wirral Metropolitan College in Liverpool, where governors were forced to resign over debts of up to pounds 9m. Some 170 staff will be made redundant.

Ministers have also demanded a "fresh start" for Bilston College, which plunged into the red by pounds 5.7m after setting up a web of franchised courses across the country. A hit-squad of experts recommended that the college be closed earlier this year after inspectors gave it the worst report seen so far.

If closure is approved, the college will be the first victim of the Government's push to raise standards in the 450 colleges in England and Wales.

Baroness Blackstone, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, promised tough new rules yesterday governing college audits and new powers for the Further Education Funding Council to intervene in cases where there is "cause for concern".

Further education is at the heart of the Government's plans to increase student numbers and promote "life-long learning". They are due to receive pounds 725m over the next three years as part of a programme to expand student numbers by 700,000 before the next election.

College principals will also have to undergo training, Lady Blackstone said. "These reports show a disturbing pattern of weak governance and poor financial control. We cannot allow a small minority to be a blot on the whole sector.

"We have already acted to tackle the problems at Halton and Wirral. Today we have appointed a new governing body for Bilston College. The people of Bilston have been let down badly."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said: "When you get so many rotten apples you tend to think that there is something putrid in the barrel.

"We need a fundamental review of accountability. The trouble with one- off reviews is they result in mass redundancies for our members who have often been trying to tell people what has been going on from the beginning."