'I am not the person I was when I came here'

Stella Mbubaegbu reflects on three decades in FE as she prepares to retire from Highbury College

Chair quits and principal suspended at Highbury College

By any standards, Stella Mbubaegbu has had a good innings at Highbury College.

“When I think about it, somebody born when I came to the college would now be funded as a 19-plus adult,” she says, laughing.

But 2019-20 will be the final year with Mbubaegbu at the helm of Highbury, as she prepares to retire at the end of the academic year.

And it’s certainly been an eventful tenure since she arrived in 2001. There have been plenty of highs. In 2008, she was made a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List. In 2011, the college was rated outstanding by Ofsted; in 2012-13, it was the best general FE college in the South-East in terms of student success rates. The college even received the award for outstanding use of technology for improving teaching and learning at the Tes FE Awards 2016.


News: Highbury College principal Stella Mbubaegbu to retire

In depth: ‘When you’ve run out of money, it’s too late’

More news: Richard Atkins stays as FE commissioner until 2020


Media scrutiny

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. In 2018 its overall Ofsted grade dropped to "requires improvement". Highbury is also currently going through the courts in a bid to recover a £1.4 million debt that is owed to it by the Cross River State Government in Nigeria. Its accounts for 2017-18 show a £2.48 million deficit, while board minutes from May said the 2019-20 budget would be “the hardest for many years”, and warned of a “very limited safety net if cash ran out”.

Most recently, the college hit the national press after the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled it should release details of the £150,000 in expenses claimed on the principal’s corporate credit card over a four-year period. Department for Education minister Lord Agnew last month said he was “deeply concerned”, and the college has since been visited by the FE commissioner.

Mbubaegbu, however, remains upbeat. “The college is doing well financially and quality-wise,” she says. “We are out-turning good financial health for last year, we're getting stronger in terms of this year with our moving to a very strong 'good', if not 'outstanding', [rating] in financial health. For this year, quality-wise, our achievements are going up. Our enrolment trends are up. For the future, in terms of what myself and my leadership team are putting in place, this is a college in a good position, as best as we know what the future holds.”

But she admits that the media coverage of the expenses case has brought a “personal cost”. “If you’re in a leadership position, people can have a go at you, and it is unfortunate,” she says. “I have been getting on with the job. For my staff, has there been an impact? Staff are very focused on the work of the college. It’s been a busy new term. We have enrolled students, we are on an upward enrolment trend. The new students have settled. We are just getting on with our work. I have had a lot of support from my staff, people asking, ‘Are you ok?’ and writing to me. I have had tremendous support from the sector. From principals, from unexpected places, people writing in, making comments, so that has been a good thing I think.

“We need to support leaders and staff in the sector. There is a personal cost to all of this, inevitably. I’ve got my family, my husband, my children, my friends, wider family, people calling and writing. But unless you’re a resilient person – if I didn’t have my family, if I didn’t have my faith – it would be devastating.”

'Our families give up so much'

As an example of the pressure that college leaders are under, Mbubaegbu cites the case of former City College Plymouth principal Garry Phillips, who died by suicide in December. He left his job a month earlier following a no-confidence vote by the University and College Union branch at the college, in the wake of a critical FE commissioner report on his tenure at his previous college.

“We have to learn the lessons from Garry Phillips’ death,” Mbubaegbu says. “I was actually at his funeral in January. I remember watching Garry’s widow, his sons who were pallbearers and the granddaughter, their devastation, hearing what they said about him and realising, here is a colleague who has given so much time to college and to the sector like so many principals and so many staff.

“I was reflecting on my own life, the energy and the passion [we put into running colleges]. Our families give up so much. That personal bit really hit me. There is a personal cost, and it’s great when people seek out or support others, because Garry did need support.”

But, irrespective of events of recent weeks, Mbubaegbu believes next year is the right time to step down for both professional and personal reasons.

“Our current strategic plan expires in 2020,” she explains. “I didn’t feel that I should be undertaking the work next year for a new plan running from 2021 if I wasn’t going to be at least there for a large part of that period to take it forward.

“On Sunday I will be 64. I do want to do something else. I see this as another season of my working life. I don’t think I will ever stop [completely]. But I don’t have any intention of leaving the sector. I just want to work in a different role, do something else.

“I’ve given my energy and my life to FE. It’s been a good 30-plus years; I have got a lot of experience and passion for the sector, I don’t intend to give that up. I would want to continue making a difference including through advocacy for fairer and better funding,  focusing on career paths of BME staff in the sector, and [carrying out] research into governance and performance management.

“My grandson is nearly two. [Considering] all the time and passion I put into FE, I think my family and my husband have coped really well. I would like to play a role in their lives in a different way. But it’s still a way away, [my retirement in July], and I still have things to do in college.”

Mbubaegbu describes her life in education as a “tremendous, fascinating, rewarding journey”. After teaching in her native Nigeria, Mbubaegbu’s first role in FE came when she joined Southwark College as a part-time teacher in 1989. She progressed to become a senior lecturer and then quality assurance manager. In 1998 she joined Croydon College as director of planning and quality and later became vice-principal before her move to the south coast in 2001 to take up the job at Highbury.

And while she may be preparing to leave her job, is it clear that the city which became her home will remain close to her heart. “Portsmouth is a very, very special place,” she says. “I didn’t know I would stay this long when I came from London. It is a special community. We talk about our passion and pride in Portsmouth, and we have that passion as a college.

“There is something about this place: the people, the community spirit, the football club, being home of the Royal Navy. People come here and they feel it, and it’s a difficult place to leave.  We have got a long way to go compared to other localities in the levels of education of our young people and poverty, but we have got fighting spirit and it’s special. Portsmouth draws you into its heart.”

'We are an island'

And Mbubaegbu admits that the further education sector, too, has become a “passion of my life”.

“I can remember taking two of the [Highbury] students to 10 Downing Street, who had never been to London. I will never forget that experience,” she says.

“We are an island. Some of our students haven’t been to London or out of Portsmouth or even to the seafront before they come to the college, and it’s been a joy to take students to participate in WorldSkills to taste excellence, to broaden their lives and their thinking through global engagement. It’s all about enrichment and transforming lives beyond the qualification.”

And Mbubaegbu’s impact can be felt far beyond Portsmouth. She chaired the Black Leadership Initiative to improve diversity in college management. Highbury has also branched out internationally, running a polytechnic in Nigeria – “Not a penny of this college’s money went into that,” she stresses – and a girls’ college in Jeddah under the Saudi Arabian Colleges of Excellence programme.

“We are very proud of the work we are doing in Jeddah with our partner college, being a real part of the Saudi Vision 2030 ambition and the transformation of technical education for young girls,” she explains.

“I embraced that and my staff embraced this work because we have built up our international engagement and that gave the staff a lot of opportunities for their own development. We wanted to fly the flag for our education system in line with government strategy and also generate income to make a contribution to college finances, and we have been successful in that.”

But it is the staff and students at Highbury that are at the front of Mbubaegbu’s mind as she prepares to leave.

“[There are] the staff I have seen grow, and been a part of their development. This has grown me as an individual. I am not the person I was when I came here.”

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen is TES' Further Education Editor. He has worked at TES since 2010, and was previously the education correspondent at the Cambridge News. He was the winner of the award for Outstanding National Education Journalism at the CIPR Education Journalism Awards in 2015 and 2013.