I have recently stepped-down as a governor of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College after 14 years, and was for five years Chairman of the Board. When colleagues asked me to take on the role I hesitated, not at all from lack of interest – because I was well and truly hooked by then – but because I doubted whether I could spare the time to do the role justice. I run a small consultancy and at the time my team was very dependent upon my personal input: any time I spent on college business would be time taken away from my consultancy. I did sign up and I have no doubt at all that on occasion my colleagues in my business resented the time I spent at the college.
I don’t think any of my fellow governors would say I was idle, and many would be probably be kind enough to say that I was conscientious, but I was unhappy that I spent insufficient time in my role, given that I was chairing a college with over 20,000 students and £55m turnover. It’s a big role, and deserves proper attention. Had I been paid for my time as Chairman, even at poorer rate than my normal consultancy fees (which is what I’d expect), I have no doubt that it would have helped me to do a better job.
But … there’s lots of buts!
First, I was unusual as a Chairman in working full-time for a small firm. Chairs are more often retired, or semi-retired, or work for a larger organisation which chooses to give them the time to do the job properly. So my case is atypical.
Second, though my college was financially strong and finding the money would not have been a problem, I saw practical difficulties in knowing where to draw the line. Paying all governors would get to be pricy, and where the NHS does that, numbers are typically much smaller than in colleges. (I have been an NHS non-executive, too, paid for the role, and saw no difference at all between the degree of commitment from fellow non-execs in the NHS compared with my time at the college: no one was ‘in it for the money’, and if that had been their motivation the Chair would most certainly have sniffed them out). Some other organisations make tiered payments depending on levels of responsibility – so much for the Chair, for committee chairs, and so on – and we could no doubt create some workable model. Housing associations are probably the best model to look at.
But third, and overwhelmingly, the time is not right. There is some talk in the college sector now about payment, which there wasn’t 10 years ago, and that’s good, but for the moment it will remain talk and there will be no change. Making a change, getting it right and selling it, will take quite a bit of effort, and I don’t see sufficient interest right now. We certainly need to give more prominence to better governance, and Susan Pember’s report is a helpful step in that direction, but payment is a distraction. Let’s leave it for now and focus on more important matters.
The Guardian’s original article to which I was responding is here.