Emergency £1.5m funding for Highbury College as accounts reveal it was weeks from running out of cash

EMERGENCY funding has been pumped into Highbury College after new leaders discovered it was set to run out of cash just months after the former principal left.

Martin Doel, interim chair, and Penny Wycherley, interim principal, at Highbury College in Cosham, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (280120-6275)
Martin Doel, interim chair, and Penny Wycherley, interim principal, at Highbury College in Cosham, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (280120-6275)

Accounts reveal the Cosham institution twice needed a shot in the arm – with £800,000 pumped into the organisation in March, and a funding bid to top up the cash to £1.5m approved by the Education and Skills Funding Agency in recent weeks.

The extra cash, sought from the government as its banks would not lend the money, is enough ‘to enable the college to continue to operate for at least a further year’.

Details emerged after the delayed publication of the college’s financial statements for the year ending July 2019, which reveal a raft of ‘governance shortcomings’ and ‘significant accounting failings’ over a period of years.

Major efforts are underway by its new leadership to lift the institution’s financial health from ‘inadequate’ to ‘requires improvement’ by July next year.

Value for money rules were breached, independent auditors ruled, after assessing the outcome of an investigation into a whistleblower’s claim ‘a member of the senior management team’ was involved in ‘inappropriate use of college funds’.

It comes after former principal Stella Mbubaegbu CBE, who was paid £202,000 a year, said in January she would retire in April - much earlier than planned. She was appointed in October 2001.

In January announcing the whistleblower investigation had concluded, the college said she ‘acted in accordance with extant college policies and procedures’.

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Highbury College principal charged £150,000 to corporate credit card

Mrs Mbubaegbu had been paid £156,000 a year with £20,000 national insurance, and £26,000 pension contributions payments. She spent more than £150,000 on a college credit card including hotel stays, a lobster dinner and luxury headphones.

Among the revelations in the college’s accounts were:

:: A £1m bank loan from Svenska Handelsbanken secured against part of the residential tower has ‘breached’ and ‘will technically all be due for repayment’.

:: ‘No books or records were maintained’ for Highbury College Nigeria Ltd. The college said this will not affect its fight to recoup £1.4m from Cross River State Government.

:: New external auditors appointed in July 2019 led to finding ‘significant accounting failings over a number of years’.

:: The college is projecting a deficit of £1.3m in 2019/20 – but hopes to break even next year – and ‘it will remain in inadequate financial health at July 31, 2020’.

:: No complete list was kept of the college’s assets, how much they were worth and any depreciation in value. The college told auditors it has £34m in assets.

:: Coronavirus has caused ‘significant disruption’ and has seen the college lose ‘significant’ income from commercial activities. These were partly offset by cuts.

:: Auditors concluded that an ‘uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt on the college’s ability to continue as a going concern’.

Interim chair of governors Martin Doel, who was brought in alongside interim principal Penny Wycherley, said: ‘Much has changed since this report was compiled and I would like to categorically state that the college has secured its finances and we continue to offer our full range of courses, support for learners and indeed to extend these and to maintain our high achievement rates.

‘There is no risk of closure and we are totally committed to serving the educational needs of Portsmouth and the surrounding area.’

In a statement he added: ‘We are pleased to confirm emergency funding from the ESFA has now been granted, ensuring the stability of the organisation as we move forward.

‘Between the period of time these accounts review and now, the college has become, in many ways, unrecognisable.

‘The introduction of an experienced interim governance and leadership team has not only stabilised the finances and significantly improved staff morale but the college’s success and retention rates look to remain well above national average, meaning our students are able to thrive in a supportive and productive environment.’

The Further Education commissioner’s team intervened in November last year, when it was put in supervised status.

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