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Damning failures of governance and leadership at Hull College, says UCU

27 January 2021

UCU said a litany of governance and leadership errors had led to money being squandered by Hull College Group.

The union was responding to a seeming revolving door between senior college staff and Hull Kingston Rovers (KR), a series of leadership changes, the threatened closure of Goole campus, and lavish marketing expenses.

In 2018 the college cut over 230 staff, received a bailout worth over £50m from the government as part of a restructuring plan, and was placed under the scrutiny of the Department for Education, various ministers, and government appointed further education (FE) commissioners. That year it also embarked upon a £1m marketing spending spree. This included a three-year rugby stadium sponsorship deal with Hull KR worth more than £240k, and more than £100,000 on computer game themed marketing, such as hospitality, hiring Hull City Hall and a philharmonic orchestra to play 8-bit computer game music as well as a contract with a public relations (PR) agency. The PR contract had an £85 per hour rate built-in for attending staff meetings.

There have also been many changes to staff leadership over the past three years. Daf Williams was appointed as chair of governors in 2018 before resigning last week, while Liz Winn was hired as head of marketing in March 2019, before becoming a director, and then vice principal by September 2019. This month she joined Hull KR to lead on business development. The previous marketing director was the partner of the then Hull College principal and chief executive Michelle Swithenbank. Ms Swithenbank left the college in 2019 amid claims of nepotism and financial wrongdoing. The college said there had been "no impropriety" on her part after paying a law firm to review its operational arrangements.

Since 2019 four interim chief executives have taken the helm at the college, with a new chief executive set to be appointed in May. The departing chair of governors defended his board's "strong" governance. The current interim chief executive has now launched a new investigation, which will look at the £240k Hull KR deal.

UCU regional official Julie Kelley said: 'Hull College Group has serious questions to answer over the transparency of deals it has struck. It is very difficult to understand how all this spending could have been allowed to happen given the college has been under supposed scrutiny by a strengthened board with financial expertise, remains in special financial measures, and that decision making has also been scrutinised by FE commissioners, specialist consultants and various government departments and agencies. It is distressing to see the college is now threatening to close down Goole college campus on financial grounds, with the damage that would cause to staff and students, especially when money has been squandered on expensive stunts. We have not seen any evidence that the £1m spent on marketing in 2018/19 has delivered meaningful tangible benefits to the college and it remains unclear as to the cost of the ongoing contract with Hull KR.

The college is desperate for a permanent leadership team that is committed to the long term future of the college and which is prepared to listen to staff, students and other stakeholders including the collective voice of the recognised trade unions. Governors must ensure that all future decisions are made with much greater transparency, that full due diligence and oversight occurs and that the needs of the local community, and current and future students are prioritised.'

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