Desperate college seeks university take-over before merger consultation even begins

A struggling London college is preparing to hand over wide-ranging control of how it is run to a university, through a highly unusual move that does not require government approval.

The planned changes – which are currently under consultation and come months ahead of a planned formal merger – will see Lambeth College’s principal stripped of many of her responsibilities, and at least half of the college’s governors appointed by London South Bank University.

The changes are being proposed to the college’s instruments and articles of governance. The Department for Education confirmed to FE Week that these don’t need to be signed off by government.

According to the consultation page on the college’s website, the principal will have “a smaller list of mandatory duties, so that he or she can focus on the effective management of the college, the learners’ experience and a strong link to the university”.

Monica Box is currently interim principal, and responsibilities that she or a successor will relinquish to LSBU include preparing annual budgets, staffing arrangements, and the “strategic direction of the college”, it said.

The university is also set to take over the balance of power on the college’s board.

“Up to five” governors will be chosen from among LSBU governors and senior staff, plus the university’s vice chancellor “unless he or she chooses not to be a governor”.

The college will be represented by an employee and a learner, along with two or three independents, which are expected to be selected from the college’s current governors.

“All other governors of Lambeth College will resign,” the document explained.

Ms Box told FE Week the proposals “link the college more closely with its chosen strategic partner”.

They also “enable the college to benefit from the support of the senior management structure within the university” and “will strengthen the college’s capacity to improve ahead of the proposed full incorporation into the LSBU family”.

The changes appear to bypass the strict government rules on FE college mergers which stipulate that merger plans must be published – and a notice posted in at least one local newspaper – at least four months before the proposed date of merger.

But Ms Box added that the current consultation, which runs until June 9, “does not stand in place of the formal public consultation” on the college’s merger plans with LSBU – which do need government approval.

She said the new arrangements were due to take effect from mid-June – months ahead of any consultation on the merger expected in the autumn.

The current consultation comes after a report by former FE Commissioner Sir David Collins, published in March, but based on a visit to Lambeth in September, concluded the college was “no longer sustainable” unless it merged.

His visit had been prompted by a “significant deterioration” in the college’s finances, caused by poor financial management.

As previously reported by FE Week, the college was bailed out by Education and Skills Funding Agency last year after its projected deficit for 2015/16 ballooned from £500,000 to more than £5 million.

The merger with LSBU was one of three options proposed for Lambeth, which was rated as ‘requires improvement’ at its most recent Ofsted inspection in December, through the central London area review.

The other two possibilities were a link-up with Lewisham Southwark College, which subsequently joined up with NCG, and a partnership alongside City of Westminster College and the College of North West London.

The merger with the university was chosen as it was thought to offer operational stability, while helping to build clear learning pathways for students, a spokesperson told FE Week in December.

LSBU was unavailable to comment ahead of publication.