Highbury College loses FOI battle to keep the principal’s expenses a secret

The UK’s data watchdog has sided with FE Week in our long-running freedom of information battle with Highbury College to obtain expense claims made on the principal’s corporate card.

A request for this information spanning the past five academic years was put in 10 months ago, but the college refused to comply and cited section 14(1) of the FOI Act on the basis it was “vexatious”.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has today finally ruled the college is not “entitled” to rely on this exemption, and must now issue a “fresh response” to FE Week.

These are legitimate interests to have and the request does have serious purpose and value

In her preliminary assessment of the case, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said: “The complainant has an interest in the finances of college, how it is being managed and how public funds are being spent both by the principal and other members of staff.

“These are legitimate interests to have and the request does have serious purpose and value.”

Highbury College must now provide a new response within 35 days and failure to comply “may result in the commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court pursuant to section 54 of the Act and may be dealt with as a contempt of court”.

The material is expected to show the college’s spending on international flights. From a previous FOI, FE Week found that Highbury principal Stella Mbubaegbu used college cash to pay for a first-class return flight from London to Dallas at a cost of £4,132.

The college will have paid out for a lot more flights over the past five years, considering its various ventures in other countries including Nigeria – where the college’s lawyers are trying to recover a long-running £1.4 million debt – and Saudi Arabia, where the college runs Jeddah College. 

Local Portsmouth newspaper, The News, received an FOI back from the college last month which listed some expense claims over the past four years.

The information shows how the principal had racked up a £5,000 phone and data bill, which included calls and expense claims made to Abu Dhabi, Italy, Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Claims for taxi fares were also racked up in New Orleans and Orlando in America, Sao Paulo Brazil, Hong Kong, Stuttgart, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands, dating back to 2014.

The data obtained by The News only listed two flights: one from London to Texas in June 2014 costing £2,860, and another for two people in October 2017 costing a combined total of £1,050 taking them to Saudi Arabia – with a note stating the flight was an “upgrade”.

Following today’s ruling, a spokesperson for Highbury College said: “The college will continue to work with the ICO to ensure all FOI requests are handled correctly and in accordance with ICO guidelines.”

Highbury College crashed two grades from ‘outstanding’ last year. It axed its A-level provision two months ago due to financial pressures, which put 13 jobs at risk.

Its accounts for 2017/18 show a £2.48 million deficit, and board minutes from March 2019 state that the college’s last pay award to staff was “in January 2013″.

The college has been subject to widespread media attention following its decision to block FE Week’s website after we revealed its debt in Nigeria at the beginning of the year.

Its attempt to suppress the report from its staff led to the story being published to a wider audience, following articles by the Press Gazette, Private Eye, and The News.

It also attracted heavy criticism from top sector officials, including skills minister Anne Milton and Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman.

The college unblocked access to FE Week a week later.