University picked as preferred bidder to take over HS2 college at risk of insolvency

The national college for High Speed 2 looks set to be taken over by a university as part of a government review initiated after the FE commissioner warned it faced potential insolvency.

The University of Birmingham has been announced as the preferred bidder to take on the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure (NCATI), as part of a structure and prospects appraisal (SPA) of the college.

The university has said it wishes to turn it into a “successful and financially sustainable educational institution to support local, regional and national economic growth”.

Its bid, which includes partner organisations the National Skills Academy for Rail, Network Rail and City & Guilds, will now be scrutinised by the government, the commissioner and both the college and university.

NCATI’s interim chief executive Sue Dare said the college was “delighted” to have gained “strong support from an internationally-renowned university”, and “looks forward to securing a bright future for the college through this exciting partnership”.

The University of Birmingham has added that all parties need to be assured NCATI’s “significant financial and educational difficulties” can be “overcome” before the transfer can go ahead.

NCATI, known as the National College for High Speed Rail (NCHSR) until October, took £4.55 million from the DfE to sign off its 2017-18 accounts.

FE Week reported last month that the college was seeking partner providers after being placed in supervised status, an Ofsted grade four and a report from FE commissioner Richard Atkins which said the board had to be instructed on how to operate while facing “potential insolvency”.

The national college, which opened in 2017, is not the first to seek out partner providers. The National College Creative Industries created partnerships with two local providers and then dissolved itself earlier this year, after having required a £600,000 Department for Education bailout to sign off its 2017/18 financial statements.

Atkins found NCATI had also based its 2019-20 budget on having 761 apprentices and 263 full-time learners, whereas in December 2019 it only had 216 apprentices and 94 other full-time students.

A DfE-commissioned report on the national college programme found NCATI had struggled with learner numbers due to delays in announcing HS2 contractors, which meant employers were unable to commit to the apprentice volumes they had originally anticipated.

Following the commissioner’s report, NCATI was placed in supervised status and has been undertaking the appraisal with the commissioner. As part of this, the college agreed not to file completed 2018-19 financial statements until after the appraisal’s completion.

The college was engulfed in controversy at the start of this year when it was revealed it had hired lawyers to stop the publication of its grade four Ofsted report.

NCATI later dropped the High Court challenge, after it cost them £73,000, and the report was published, revealing employers were having to teach apprentices skills which were not covered by the college.