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Three years of concerns over college funding

By David Gordon

A Stormont department took three years to conclude that a college was not entitled to public funding it had received, a report has found.

Fermanagh College was told in 2006 that it had to repay £1.14m allocated for the delivery of Work Based Learning (WBL) courses.

This was due to the fact that, contrary to WBL rules, the training was being provided by a company rather then the college itself.

A report today by the Northern Ireland Audit Office said the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) had concerns about the situation in 2003.

“It appeared that the college was acting largely as management agent and was generating Departmental funding at least possible cost and effort to itself,” it said.

At that stage, the college principal gave assurances that the rules were not being breached.

Concerns on the subject were subsequently raised again, by a further education inspection report in November 2004.

The Audit Office said it was not until August 2005 that auditors were engaged to investigate the matter. This examination led to the payback demand in 2006.

The process of repaying the money to the department is ongoing, today's report said.

“We are concerned that it took three years to decide that the college was not entitled to WBL funding and that the department did not exercise a more active challenge function when there was reason to believe that it was not acting appropriately,” the Audit Office added.

It also said: “We note that the department had considerable difficulty eliciting information from the college management and had received conflicting information from the principal.

“On one occasion in June 2005, officials made a pre-arranged visit to the college to inspect books and records pertaining to WBL delivery but were told by the principal that these were not available.”

Today's report also said that the principal retired on health grounds in 2006.

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