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Millions 'misused';FE Focus

Allegations are mounting against Halton College in Cheshire. Harvey McGavin reports on the investigation

Details of allegations that millions of pounds of public money have been misused by a Cheshire college were being scrutinised by funding chiefs this week.

The Further Education Funding Council began preliminary inquiries into Halton College in Widnes after receiving reports of major financial irregularities.

A meeting between external auditors Robson Rhodes, the FEFC was being held to consider the evidence as The TES went to press.

The TES has seen documents which detail allegations against the college which include exaggerating funding claims for courses, the setting up of private companies, expensive refurbishment of the offices and the purchase of information technology equipment in contravention of the college's own financial guidelines.

One purchase of IT equipment went ahead without further quotations being sought. The college's financial handbook specifies a minimum of five tenders for purchases of more than pound;20,000. Another contract was granted to a company even though its quotation was considerably higher than a rival tender.

One allegation which the FEFC was asked to investigate is that a course lasting a few hours was described as a 16-week full-time programme. Another details payments of nearly pound;200,000 that were claimed despite the course being ineligible for FEFC funding.

The college also continued claiming for students after they had dropped out of courses, it is alleged. Some of the allegations are believed to involve the training of college staff as NVQ assessors and internal verifiers.

Media Vault, a multimedia company set up in November last year, wholly owned by the college and numbering principal Martin Jenkins and his deputy Jenny Dolphin among its directors, is also under investigation.

At a governors meeting six weeks ago the principal confirmed that it was being supported by the college to the tune of pound;500,000 per annum.

The college also spent pound;38,000 setting up an office in China, which worked to promote hair and beauty products for cosmetic's company Cussons and acted as a "sourcing centre" for North-west businesses and a "handling agent" for London universities.

A pound;250,000 bill relating to the refurbishment of the principal's office suite with shower, gym, kitchen facilities and marble floor is also being examined, as are allegations that the principal and his deputy used college funds to pay for a hire car which they took with them on a private trip to France.

Several governors are also senior employees of companies included in the college's list of approved suppliers. One of them is education and marketing manager of a major information technology company which has done hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of business with the college. Another is personnel and training manager of a large hotel group -De Vere - which uses the college's franchised courses to train its staff.

The board of governors turned down a request from the FEFC last week to suspend principal Martin Jenkins and his vice-principal Jenny Dolphin, while independent auditors investigated the college's affairs.

It said: "The college is co-operating fully with an investigation commissioned by FEFC following allegations made by one individual who has no known connection with the college."

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