Financial auditors conclude former principal’s expenses failed public money test

The controversial expenses racked up by Highbury College’s former principal were “not in line” with value for money rules for managing public cash, an auditing firm has concluded.

In September 2019 and following a year-long freedom of information battle, FE Week revealed that Stella Mbubaegbu had spent £150,000 on the college’s corporate credit card in just four years on items such as first class flights, five star hotels, designer headphones and a boozy lobster dinner.

Then Department for Education minister Lord Agnew, who said he was “deeply concerned” by the spending, intervened immediately by sending in the FE Commissioner Richard Atkins to investigate.

At the time, the college insisted the expenses were “approved and authorised and were then subject to independent audit, as is usual practice”. Mbubaegbu, who became principal of Highbury College in 2001, was then suspended in November and officially retired in April.

While the FE Commissioner’s report findings are held up by the coronavirus pandemic, Highbury College’s new external auditing firm, Mazars LLP, have given their opinion on the expenses after conducting their own investigation.

In the college’s delayed accounts for 2018/19, which were published this week following a “thorough independent audit of historical finance practices”, the auditors said: “During the year, as part of a whistleblowing incident, some instances of potentially inappropriate use of college funds were identified.

“This related to expenditure by a member of the senior management team, some of which arose during the period 1 August 2018 to 31 July 2019.

“In our opinion, the expenditure was not in line with the principles set forth by Parliament of achieving Economy, Efficiency and Effectiveness.”

Asked if the auditors’ opinion would lead to any further action, a spokesperson for Highbury College said: “Matters raised within the report have been reviewed via the appropriate channels. We are unable to comment further.”

And a spokesperson for the DfE said: “We decline to comment. It is a matter for the college, which has conducted its own investigation into the matter.”

Mbubaegbu was replaced by Penny Wycherley as interim principal in December and Martin Doel was later announced as interim chair.

Doel said that the introduction of an “experienced interim governance and leadership team has not only stabilised the finances and significantly improved staff morale but the college’s success and retention rates look to remain well above national average, meaning our students are able to thrive in a supportive and productive environment”.

But since Mbubaegbu’s departure, Highbury has had to secure a government bailout after the new leadership team discovered the college was set to run out of cash (click here for full story).