Top-performing college owed £500k pulls out of Saudi Arabia programme

A college has terminated its contract with the controversial Saudi Arabian Colleges of Excellence programme due to “on-going delays” in receiving payments resulting in an alleged £500,000 debt.

Dudley College, rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, began work with the Saudi government in 2011 and has taken part in various ventures in the country over the last eight years.

Most recently the college has delivered Capacity Building Contracts in Hafr Al-Batin Girls College from September 2017, which was due to conclude in 2020, as part of its work with Saudi’s Colleges of Excellence scheme.

But Dudley felt it had “no choice but to terminate this contract” after repeated failures by the programme to pay the college.

Speaking candidly about the decision, principal Lowell Williams said: “Despite the invaluable support provided by the UK’s Ambassador to the Kingdom and the Department for Trade and Industry, contractual payments remain in arrears to the value of £0.5 million.

“The position we find ourselves in is very frustrating. We believe we have been making a real difference to the lives of young women in the Kingdom.

“Whilst we understand that governmental issues in Saudi might have contributed to delays in payments, unfortunately as a result CoE have breached their contract with us.”

He added that it would “not be appropriate” for Dudley to use UK public funds to “sustain the cash flow of the project in Hafr Al-Batin Girls College”.

Colleges of Excellence was founded in 2013 to boost technical and vocational education and training in Saudi Arabia through partnerships with international providers.

But a number of providers dropped out of the programme early on as challenges with operating in the region became apparent.

An FE Week investigation in 2016 uncovered grave financial problems at some of the colleges taking part.

Lincoln College and the Hertfordshire Vocational Education Consortium won huge contracts from the CoE programme of around £250 million each in 2014. But both experienced significant losses associated with these contract in their accounts for the following year.

Mr Williams said today that Dudley’s “primary concern in reaching this decision is to protect the interests of our UK learners and to ensure they are not disadvantaged in any way”.

“We have always made it clear our international activity must be self-sustaining,” he explained.

“We would not continue to trade at risk with any other partner if there were significant contractual arrears.

“Since we began our work in Saudi Arabia we have generated an income of just over £3 million which has delivered a surplus in the region of £0.5 million.

“In the unlikely event that we are unable to recover the outstanding contracted sums, the college’s overall Saudi operations will have delivered a break even performance.”

Mr Williams said his college remains “fully committed” to its “other flagship international projects, particularly our work in India with the UK India Education Research Initiative and our British Council funded projects in South Africa and Pakistan”.

Dudley’s decision to terminate its Saudi contract because of unpaid debts comes a week after FE Week revealed that Highbury College called in the lawyers to recover a long-running £1.4 million debt held up in Nigeria, after a technical education project in the country went pear-shaped.

Colleges were warned off overseas ventures in 2016 following the collapse of AoC India, which fell just four years after launching when 25 UK college members quit.