Interim chiefs say Highbury College is 'living a different life' after expenses woe - but admit trust took a 'wobble'

INTERIM college chiefs drafted in after a principal was criticised for making expense claims of more than £150,000 have said the institution is ‘living a different life now’.

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 2:36 pm
Updated Thursday, 30th January 2020, 1:34 pm

Highbury College came under fire in September when an investigation found principal Stella Mbubaegbu made the claims over just four years.

The corporate credit card spending included first-class flights, four and five-star hotel stays, £434 luxury headphones and a £219 dishwasher.

Interim principal and chief executive, Penny Wycherley, and interim chair of governors, Martin Doel, were later appointed to improve the Cosham site and address concerns over its finances expressed by the further education commissioner, Richard Atkins CBE.

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Martin Doel, interim chair, and Penny Wycherley, interim principal, at Highbury College in Cosham, Portsmouth. Picture: Sarah Standing (280120-6296)

Speaking to The News today, the pair said they would work together in the face of adversity to give Portsmouth ‘the college it deserves’.

‘My role is to create an environment in which staff and students can flourish,' said Ms Wycherley, a former Ofsted inspector and troubleshooter for colleges and businesses.

‘We can learn from the past but we are living a different life now – I want to see us move forward, not wallow in whatever happened before.’

She added: ‘[We’re] making contacts, looking at what the communities need, the economy needs and what will benefit students most.

Stella Mbubaegbu, suspended principal of Highbury College. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

‘There are students who are quite disadvantaged and future students who are quite disadvantaged, so we are making sure we can serve them well.

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‘That’s what the focus is on – that may be through different curriculum and organising.’

While a review found Ms Mbubaegbu’s expense claims did not contravene policy, Ms Wycherley said they did have ‘an impact on reputation’.

Mr Doel, a former CEO of the Association of Colleges and director of education across the three armed forces, also admitted the controversy had damaged the trust Highbury students and their parents have in the college.

‘It would be ignoring reality if I said there wasn’t an effect,' he said.

‘But I would probably say it was a wobble – rather than being broken – and our job is to stop the wobble, make it stable and move forward.’

A key part of his role will be ‘challenging’ Ms Wycherley with the college's best interests at heart, simultaneously recruiting fresh governance.

He said: ‘One of my key tasks here is to put in place and help develop a board that is most effective – custodians of the future of this college as it moves forward – so we have stronger governance more involved in the correct way.

‘[The FE commissioner] is very keen here to have the right types of qualifications amongst the governors of the boards and particularly, to recruit – and I make a plea through The News – some more financially qualified accountants who would like to join the board and make a commitment and contribution to the college.’

Mr Doel also urged people with a legal background and estates experience to apply to join Highbury College's board.

It comes as it faces a multi-million pound bill to take down cladding from one of its towers which failed Grenfell-style safety tests.

Ms Wycherley, who dubbed the expenses controversy a ‘springboard for the future’, said the college's staff and students would ‘love’ to propel its Ofsted ranking from ‘requires improvement' to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding'.

‘Clearly staff and students will be worried about the stability of the college – I don’t think that they need to worry about that,' she said.

‘This college has a great future in serving the community of Portsmouth. That’s what we’re about and that hasn’t changed.’

Ms Mbubaegbu, who was suspended in November, will officially leave Highbury College on April 30.