A college at the centre of a misconduct and secrecy row has failed to meet good governance standards, according to national auditors.

Audit Scotland checks found a number of areas where South Lanarkshire College (SLC) did not fully comply with the Code of Good Governance for Colleges.

This included the board not meeting for five months from June 2021, and the audit and risk committee not meeting for six months from May 2021. 

In November 2021, the board agreed to commission two independent investigations into complaints and grievances on matters relating to its chair Andy Kerr, interim clerk to the board Brian Keegan, and Aileen McKechnie, the principal.

READ MORE: Misconduct row college accused of failing to act on complaints

The board also agreed to suspend the principal and interim clerk while these investigations continued. The board chair, who is a former Labour minister, voluntarily stepped aside from his role for the same period. The investigations are ongoing.  

Earlier in 2021, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) commissioned an external review into governance at the college. A redacted copy of this report was provided to the South Lanarkshire board in October and its recommendations were included in a governance improvement plan prepared by the college.

However, the level of redactions in the report meant the college's independent auditor could not say whether the action plan covers all the SFC's recommendations.

The latest concerns have been set out in a newly published Audit Scotland report.  

Auditor General Stephen Boyle said: "These governance issues risk preventing scrutiny of how South Lanarkshire College operates on behalf of its students, staff and the wider community. 

"The improvement plan developed by the college is an important step forward. It is essential that the board and senior management team now take ownership of the plan and work together to ensure it is delivered." 

HeraldScotland: Andy Kerr, left, a former Labour minister, has voluntarily stepped aside from his role as SLC board chair. SLC principal Aileen McKechnie, right, has been suspended.Andy Kerr, left, a former Labour minister, has voluntarily stepped aside from his role as SLC board chair. SLC principal Aileen McKechnie, right, has been suspended.

His remarks come after The Herald revealed accusations that the college board had failed to act meaningfully on complaints made against it.

Four whistleblowing claims – believed to involve issues such as governance, conduct and the treatment of staff – were received by SLC between September and November last year.

College sources said the allegations highlighted a range of concerns. These include the exclusion of staff and student members from board meetings, the withholding of relevant information, bullying and intimidation.

The Herald has also been told there were multiple resignations from the board during 2021, and that the board and a number of key committees were inquorate for a period of time.

SLC bosses said the four whistleblowing complaints, together with formal complaints relating to Mr Kerr, Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan, were the subject of ongoing inquiries.

READ MORE: College in fresh transparency row over 'stalled' report after misconduct claims

The 2021 allegations are on top of a number of complaints that were received in the latter part of 2020. These triggered the appointment of Azets – a company that specialises in audit, accounting, tax and business advice services – and an internal investigation led by the college principal. It is believed the complaints contained claims of fraud, theft and general malfeasance connected to the time before Ms McKechnie’s tenure.

The probe resulted in the production of an audit report last year that made “a number of recommendations for improvements to internal procedures”. College bosses said they had accepted “all the recommendations in full”. However, news of the suspension of Ms McKechnie and Mr Keegan emerged suddenly just weeks later.

The college has now published an action plan that details the recommendations and progress to date. Bosses have so far refused to release the audit report, but their update suggests the investigation uncovered significant weaknesses and failings. It outlines how procedures are being, or have been, enhanced in areas such as procurement, preventing bribery, carrying out supplier due diligence, accepting hospitality or gifts, HR, overseeing budgets and expenditure, stock control, inventory management, and protecting access to storerooms and other locations that are “susceptible to theft”.

Bosses were also advised to tighten processes for course and lecturer timetabling, the monitoring of student attendance, student withdrawals and booking out college vehicles. The recommendations and update contain recurring references to SLC’s construction faculty.

COMMENT: College governance questions still to be answered

Paul Hutchinson, acting chair of SLC's board of management, said: “We are aware of the Section 22 audit report raised by the Auditor General in relation to corporate governance at the college.

"The governance improvement plan developed by the college is an important step forward in addressing the concerns raised within the Section 22 report. The board and senior management team jointly own the plan and will work together to ensure it is delivered.

"Continuous monitoring of the plan will be conducted by the audit and risk committee. In addition, governance will be subject to review as part of the college’s agreed internal audit plan. Many of these actions have already been progressed and we will continue to work with senior staff and key public bodies to progress any outstanding actions for improvement.

"The focus of the board remains on providing a high-quality learning experience for its students and meeting the needs of the communities which it serves.”