Hull College Group has had no shortage of visits from the FE commissioner and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) in recent years.
Within the space of a few weeks in late 2016, the group was rated “inadequate” for its financial health, given an ESFA notice of concern over its finances and subjected to an intervention from the FE commissioner.
The resulting report highlighted a cumulative deficit of about £10 million over a four-year period, allied with a “steady decline in financial performance and loss of market share”.
In May 2018, the University and College Union’s congress was told that Hull had received £54 million in restructuring funding – a figure neither the college nor Department for Education has confirmed.
The departure of chief executive Gary Warke was announced in March 2017. Just six weeks after joining as his deputy, Michelle Swithenbank found herself in the role of acting CEO at the crisis-hit institution – her first job leading a college.
The situation, she admits, was “dire”. “We could have ended up in a closure position, if I’m honest, if we hadn’t been able to get our grant funding and have a successful recovery plan in place,” says Swithenbank.
The recovery plan was focused on reducing staffing costs and ensuring the college’s curriculum matched the needs of the local economy.
She explains: “Simply put, we were spending more money than we had, we had more staff than we needed and we’d lost market share in terms of how many students were coming through the doors, but we hadn’t reduced our staffing correctly in line with that.”
As a result, the college announced plans to cut the equivalent of 231 full-time posts – a move that, unsurprisingly, triggered anger among staff and let to strike action.
Swithenbank says she decided that honesty with staff was the best policy. Now, she states, the college’s finances are stable and staff morale is improving: “Staff have come back [for the new term] really excited and really passionate to make this work. They’re totally committed to getting us back to being a really fantastic college.”