Hull college boss quits despite chair telling staff investigation found ‘no impropriety’

The chief executive at a college under investigation for nepotism and ‘financial wrongdoing’ is leaving, FE Week can reveal.

In an email to all staff seen by this newspaper, the chair of the corporation confirmed “Michelle Swithenbank will be leaving Hull College at the end of this term” but investigators had found “no impropriety”.

She was previously on a ‘leave of absence’ and no longer running the college.

Vice Principal HR and Professional Services at Hull College Group, Julie Milad, is another high-profile departure.

Dafydd Williams, Corporation Chair, told staff today that “no impropriety on the part of Michelle” had been found by Eversheds’ review of operational arrangements.

“Nevertheless, Michelle has informed us that she wishes to move on, and feels this is a good time to do so,” he added.

Swithenbank joined the Hull College Group in January 2017 as deputy chief executive.

Milad had been engaged by the college on a consultancy basis to lead the Fresh Start staffing reductions and restructuring and “stayed at the College longer than she originally intended”.

Williams said: “I would like to take this opportunity to thank both of them for their work on our behalf and wish them well for the future.”

It was understood that the FE Commissioner, Richard Atkins, visited the college following the revelation in FE Week that the ‘independent’ investigator hired by the college chair, was the college lawyer.

The college was already under financial intervention following a £50 million bail-out last year.

It is currently being run by an interim chief executive Derek O’Toole, who was appointed in November to initially take up the role for one month.

Allegations of nepotism first surfaced in 2018, but it was understood that it is appointments that have occurred in recent months that are under investigation.

Swithenbank became the top boss in August 2018 around the time that the college received a bailout of more than £50 million and slashed more than 300 staff to balance the books as part of a ‘Fresh Start’ programme overseen by the FE Commissioner.

Published accounts for 2017/18 reveal a “partner of a senior post-holder” was appointed in January 2018 and resigned their position in August 2018 after being paid £36,640.

The senior post-holder was then chief executive Michelle Swithenbank and the partner, now husband, was Graham Raddings.

Raddings was appointed to a new senior post, executive director of marketing and innovation in January 2018.

He used the marketing budget to hire the 80-piece Hull Philharmonic Orchestra to play computer-game music when in charge of the college marketing budget between January and August 2018.

The investigation is understood to also include over £100,000 spent on a computer game app, computer game-style cinema advertising and a PR agency that promoted the music event and computer game.

After the revelations, a spokesperson for Hull College Group said: “The board were made aware of the event happening in June 2017, and considered there was no conflict of interest.”

FE Week understands that in February 2018 a whistleblower informed the FE Commissioner of the relationship.

The college told FE Week that full disclosure of a family connection was made to the board and claim it was a fixed term marketing role concluding in August 2018.

The current investigation is understood to relate to the use of college funds and appointments in recent months, and is being conducted by a law firm with experience of the FE sector which will report back to the chair.

Email: Chair announcement to all staff

Dear Colleagues,

As the year draws to a close, I write with news of two departures.

Our CEO, Michelle Swithenbank will be leaving Hull College at the end of this term.

As you know, Eversheds has been conducting a thorough review of our operational arrangements, and I must stress it has found that there has been no impropriety on the part of Michelle. Nevertheless, Michelle has informed us that she wishes to move on, and feels this is a good time to do so. Michelle will be communicating with you all shortly.

Our VP HR and Professional Services Julie Milad has also informed us that she wishes to move on having originally been engaged by the college on a consultancy basis to lead the Fresh Start staffing reductions and restructuring. Julie has stayed at the College longer than she originally intended. As some of you may know, Julie’s home is in Manchester, and due to family responsibilities, she has decided to return there.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank both of them for their work on our behalf and wish them well for the future.

Kind regards,

Dafydd Williams
Corporation Chair

UPDATE:

A statement received from the college after publication said: “Hull College CEO Michelle Swithenbank has announced she is stepping down at the end of this year.

“In a note to colleagues she wrote: ‘While there can be no doubt that this has been a challenging period, I have always cherished the belief that this is a special place, doing wonderful things. It deserves the best chance to recover.

“I have been blessed to work with staff who shared this belief, and the net result is a college that has a financially viable future and every opportunity to thrive. It is now time for me to pass the baton on to someone else for the next stage of your journey.’

“The search for her replacement will begin in the New Year.

“The College has stressed the operational review conducted by Eversheds found there was no impropriety on the part of Michelle Swithenbank.”