Five colleges are preparing bids to take on provision run by the Hadlow College Group, the FE commissioner has revealed.
Speaking to Tes at the High Court after Hadlow College was placed into education administration today, Richard Atkins (pictured) said the case was “one the most significant moments since 1992 and the incorporation of colleges”.
The move means that Hadlow will be the first institution to go through the college insolvency regime, created by the Technical and Further Education Act 2017.
Mr Atkins said the five interested parties had until 3 June to submit their proposals for merger with all or part of the Hadlow College Group, which includes West Kent and Ashford College. The latter has not been placed into education administration. East Kent College has already expressed an interest in Ashford College and the Canterbury Spring Lane Campus.
Mr Atkins said: “We’re going to take a short time, a few weeks, to evaluate those [bids] and to put together a series of recommendations to the administrator. They will make the final decision.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but ideally at the start of, or early in, the next academic year, we would have new governance and structural arrangements. But the curriculum, the provision of education on offer in Ashford, Tonbridge and Hadlow must, and will, continue and we must do that with the minimum of disruption.”
Quick read: First college set to go into insolvency regime
'Very poor' leadership and governance
He added: “This afternoon, in legal terms, was for me one the most significant moments since 1992 and the incorporation of colleges. If you’re going to be an incorporated organisation and enjoy a degree of autonomy and independence, ultimately you’re going to be found accountable.
“I regret that this has had to happen, but this is the most serious case I’ve dealt with, and I think one of the most serious we’ve ever had in the sector in terms of the complexity and scale of the financial problems, which are huge [and] linked to the very poor levels of leadership and governance at the college.
“What reassures me is that it’s a protected scheme, it’s a special scheme, as the judge drew attention to. I’m continuing to work with [interim principal] Graham Morley and the staff to make sure the students get a good experience at the college. I want to pay tribute to the staff at the college, the teaching and support staff, who I think have done a brilliant job since February.
Hadlow College: 'A solemn moment'
“It’s a solemn moment, I regret that it’s had to happen. I hope [the insolvency regime] won’t be used regularly and I don’t expect it to be used very regularly. But it does show that if you’re given a degree of autonomy and independence of public assets, and you mismanage them on a grand scale and create huge debts, then I do think its appropriate to call a moratorium to bring everything to a legal halt, and for an administrator to be appointed.
“If nobody is ever held to account for these extreme levels of poor behaviour, then we’ll have anarchy.”
Entering administration started a period of moratorium, Mr Atkins said: “That means we can freeze creditors and start everything under the administrators tomorrow morning, and have financial professionals get to the bottom of the situation as fast as they possibly can, to look at what’s gone wrong and sort it out.”
The process “should not lead to undue disruption for staff or students”, he added. “I think the main focus of our work will be on supporting Graham to ensure the college runs through, initially, to the end of this academic year in proper fashion so that students get a really good deal at the end, get the right outcomes and make the right progression. And then, that we open in September with as many students as we can possibly attract to the college, and the year gets off to a good start.”