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

A PRINCIPAL spent £150,000 on a college credit card including splashing out on stays at high-end London hotels, first-class flights around the world and £356 at an upmarket restaurant.

Friday, 20th September 2019, 11:33 am
Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury College, pictured in June 2018 at the college in Cosham with students. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Highbury College’s Stella Mbubaegbu is under the spotlight with corporate credit card receipts revealing spending equivalent to £82 a day between 2014-2018. Costs cover travel, accommodation, stationery, gifts and books.

In that period the principal took 30 flights, with prices ranging from £200 to more than £6,000, and her total travel expenses come to more than £70,000. Many of the flights appear to be first class.

In that time accommodation costs come to more than £60,000 – with the receipts showing Ms Mbubaegbu stayed in luxury – sometimes four-star but mostly five-star – hotels all over America, in Canada, Dubai, China, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. There is also a bill from the Portsmouth Marriott Hotel, which is just 10 minutes from the college.

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Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury College, pictured in June 2018 at the college in Cosham with students. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

The latest revelations come from receipts obtained by magazine FEWeek under freedom of information laws. The Cosham college tried to block the information being made public but the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled it should be released.

It comes as minutes from a governors’ meeting reveal Ms Mbubaegbu warned the 2019/20 budget would be the ‘hardest for many years’ and added: ‘There was a very limited safety net if cash ran out.’

Such are the financial pressures that the chair of governors, Tim Mason, ‘wished to explore’ merging with Portsmouth College, with his opposite number ‘open to’ the suggestion but there are no plans to do so.

The spending has shocked union leaders as in just 15 days in July last year Ms Mbubaegbu spent £1,611.82 on her college card, which has a £20,000 limit.

Conrad London St James Hotel London. Picture: Google

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Purchases include £434.86 Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H8 headphones at an Apple store in 2016, and a £219.99 Kenwood dishwasher from Currys in 2017.

And the travel expenses also show that Ms Mbubaegbu landed at Heathrow in November 2016 and hired an executive car to take her to Birmingham, while an Aqua Cars cab took her luggage back to Hampshire.

The University and College Union’s Moray McAulay called the spending ‘galling’ and added the expenditure ‘sends a damaging message about the college’s priorities’. It comes as the college is wrestling with a Nigerian state to reclaim £1.4m.

Hilton Hotel in Upper Woburn Place in London. Picture: Google

A Highbury College spokeswoman said expenses were ‘approved and authorised and were then subject to independent audit, as is usual practice’.

Mr Mason, chairman of the board governors, told The News: ‘It’s quite a new board and we have things to review.

‘Anything to do with governance is part of that. We are thoroughly looking at the governance.’

The News previously revealed how the principal amassed a £5,000 phone bill including £36 on a three-second phone call in Saudi Arabia where the college has business interests. The institution axed A-levels this year.

Nicola Youern, chief executive of You Trust, is part of the Portsmouth Together Partnership which aims to use the voluntary sector to improve health and wellbeing.

Receipts reveal that ahead of a £356 meal for four at a Michelin star restaurant Ms Mbubaegbu stayed at the £280-a-night Hilton Hotel in Bloomsbury, charging an extra £33.25 for room service at the four-star hotel to her college credit card.

When the lavish night out at the Quilon restaurant in London ended at 11.22pm on July 12 with a £111 drinks bill she retired to the five-star Conrad St James hotel in Westminster at a cost of £369 for the room and £16 for an ‘accommodation supplement’.

Diners shared a £26 mango chicken starter, one enjoyed a £45 lobster dinner, and others had a £22-a-piece lamb biryani and chicken roast.

Thirsty diners quaffed two mojito cocktails costing £14 each, £14 a pop margaritas, three Mongoose beers at £7 each and two £11 non-alcoholic ‘Zingy’ cocktails.

A receipt shows £1 was donated to charity.

Bang and Olufsen Beoplay H8 headphones

Spending included £33.70 on a personalised ‘wave cut’ engraved whisky set for Parviz Daneshvar, a long-serving governor who quit in 2018 on July 12. Four days later a £63 bouquet was bought from Knot Just Blooms Ltd in Portchester. The same day £30.95 was spent on a pink Prosecco gift set from Thorntons chocolatier.

A week later Ms Mbubaegbu charged £302.53 to her Barclaycard for 16 books from Amazon - including one on financial management.

Another written book, Extreme Ownership, by former US Navy Seals, gives lessons to organisations on how they can use military insight to ‘achieve the highest level of success’.

One lesson detailed in the book is called: Check The Ego: Operate with a high degree of humility by admitting mistakes and taking responsibility.

Mr McAulay said: 'The principal’s spending on Michelin-starred meals and high-end hotels sends a damaging message about the college’s priorities.

‘It is all the more galling given that the college has been pleading poverty on pay - staff have not received a pay rise since 2013 and the college has cut jobs in recent years.

‘Investing in students and staff to ensure that the local community can benefit from high-quality learning should always be the college’s top priority for spending.’

Credit card statements were signed off by Nicola Youern, former chairwoman of governors and chief executive at the Fareham-based You Trust charity. She did not respond to a request for comment.

A college spokeswoman said: ‘The college maintains continuous review of its procedures. Its purpose in doing so is to ensure that rigour and current best practice is embedded within the college and that it achieves good use of public money to meet the needs of our students and the community.

‘Merger discussions are not taking place between Highbury College and Portsmouth College. However, the college is currently in discussion with local providers to explore greater collaboration to ensure the best offer for students in the area.’

Rules at the college were tightened in May so alcohol and lunch cannot be claimed by staff.

At that board meeting a proposal was agreed that the principal's credit card should have a £2,000, not a £20,000 limit and that all foreign travel would need to be authorised by the chair / vice-chair and that all travel would be second class unless authorised.

The minutes of the meeting also report that the chairman had held four ‘meet the chair’ coffee meetings with staff across three college sites, finding that staff wanted to meet the governors.

Among the issues raised were that staff wanted management, especially the principal, to be more visible within the college, and that staff wanted to feel valued and heard.

The report adds: ‘They wanted more effective engagement with, and reporting back from, management. The chair believed morale was low and that staff felt disempowered.’

The ‘meet the chair’ sessions also discovered that staff wanted to reduce printing costs and the chairman noted that the board would start considering its own printing costs.

Quilon restaurant in London. Picture: Google