Staff relations crisis deepens at college in ‘misconduct’ storm

Scotland’s further and higher education funding body has been criticised for an “apparent relaxed attitude” to signs that staff relations at a college are in crisis.

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is under pressure after The Herald revealed earlier this month that Aileen McKechnie, principal and chief executive of South Lanarkshire College (SLC), and Brian Keegan, Interim Clerk to the Board of Management, had been suspended.

College bosses said they had acted so “various complaints” could be addressed fairly and to ensure “ongoing good governance” at their institution. But the move has inflamed anger among employees.

Last month, the SLC Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) branch overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence in board chairman Andy Kerr. That action has since been escalated. On December 20, the branch passed a vote of no confidence in the entire board, with members calling for Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan to be reinstated.

The latest developments come after Ms McKechnie ordered an external probe into allegations of misconduct at the college.

READ MORE: College bosses suspend principal and senior figure

This resulted in auditors producing a document that made “a number of recommendations for improvements to internal procedures”. College bosses said they accepted “all the recommendations in full”.

A college statement that was published in September said: “Complaints made were initially investigated internally before an external forensic investigation by our internal auditors was introduced earlier this year. The investigation concluded in May and provided a report with a number of recommendations for improvements to internal procedures.

“The college has accepted all recommendations in full. An action plan is now in place to take this forward.”

In a separate development, the suspension of Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan has prompted EIS-FELA members at New College Lanarkshire (NCL) to submit questions to the Lanarkshire Board, which is responsible for ensuring high quality further education (FE) across the region.

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The questions cover a range of issues, including the nature of the complaints that led to the suspension of Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan, and whether these complaints were the same ones examined by previous internal and forensic investigations. NCL members also note that Mr Kerr sits on the SFC board and ask whether this creates a conflict of interest, given the Council’s FE governance role.

Amid signs of an accelerating deterioration in working relationships, The Herald asked the SFC to outline what action it would be taking, whether it would be investigating and what the timescales would be.

In response, the organisation stated that it was “aware” of the situation at SLC and of steps being taken to ensure complaints could be addressed properly.

An SFC spokesman said: “The college and Regional Strategic Body have assured us that arrangements are in place to secure the ongoing good governance and sound leadership of the college.”

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The comment has drawn a critical reaction from the EIS-FELA. National salaries convener John Kelly said: “I am concerned by the apparent relaxed attitude of the Scottish Funding Council to recent events at South Lanarkshire College.

“I wonder if the SFC have had sight of the internal audit report which seems to be linked to the suspension of the principal of the college, and if it has, it should make this report available to the public. I do worry about issues surrounding ‘good governance and sound leadership’. I would expect local parliamentary representatives to be taking more interest.”

The Herald approached SLC for comment on the SFC statement and EIS-FELA criticisms, and an update on developments since the suspension of Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan. The college had yet to respond at the time of going to press. 

An SLC spokesman said previously: “South Lanarkshire College has taken steps to allow various complaints to be dealt with in a fair and proper manner and has made arrangements to secure the ongoing good governance and sound leadership of the College and positive outcomes for students.”

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