London college agrees merger after being put at ‘significant risk’

A London college which was put at “significant risk” by failures in financial management and control is seeking to join a successfully-merged neighbour.

Richmond-upon-Thames College (RuTC) has announced, as a result of an FE Commissioner-led structure and prospects appraisal, that it plans to merge with Harrow College and Uxbridge College (HCUC) by August 2021.

It comes after a torrid time for RuTC, with the resignation of multiple senior leaders, a critical FE Commissioner intervention report, the college dropping out of delivering T Level qualifications, and the government warning its future sustainability was at risk.

RuTC interim principal Elaine McMahon has said the merger would see the colleges “share and promote best practice teaching and learning to ensure consistent quality throughout every aspect of the three colleges”.

Richmond’s chair Ian Valvona added that this proposed merger is a “watershed moment” in the college’s 80-year history.

HCUC group principal Darrell DeSouza said he was “delighted” with the plan, adding: “I certainly believe that such a merger would open up collaborative opportunities and a broader vision, and strengthen sustainable provision to learners and employers alike within the west London and surrounding areas.”

HCUC, which leads on the flagship West London Institute of Technology, was formed by a merger of Harrow and Uxbridge colleges in 2017, and an Ofsted monitoring visit published in July 2019 found it was making ‘significant progress’ in two out of five areas, and ‘reasonable progress’ in the rest. Uxbridge College was rated ‘outstanding’ by the watchdog at its most recent full inspection – in 2008, while Harrow was judged ‘requires improvement’ in 2016.

The first public sign of trouble at RuTC was when principal Robin Ghurbhurun resigned in July last year “for personal reasons,” and was replaced on an interim basis the following October with accountant and experienced college leader Diane Dimond, who has subsequently been replaced by McMahon.

The college also pulled out of delivering wave two of T Levels in January, to prioritise the development of an £80 million campus at Twickenham, which partially opened in March.

The announcement about T Levels came on the same day the Education and Skills Funding Agency published a financial health notice to improve for RuTC, which highlighted “declining financial health,” a forecast of a “significant” financial deficit for 2018/19, and “weaknesses in leadership and management”.

A report from FE Commissioner Richard Atkins on his intervention in the college in October 2019 was published last March, and found college staff had been in “crisis mode” for much of 2019.

Also, there had been a “very turbulent” period where not just the principal, but also the vice principal for finance and enterprise, the clerk and the deputy principal had left.

But, the report noted, leadership had been “significantly, albeit temporarily, stabilised” with the appointment of experienced interim postholders.

The college ended up generating a £6.2 million deficit in 2018/19.

In a letter attached to the report, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan wrote: “Significant failures in the college’s financial management and control have resulted in the college operating under serious financial pressure. 

“In the context of the increasing financial commitments required by the ongoing campus redevelopment project, I am greatly concerned that this presents significant risks to the college’s working capital and its future sustainability.” 

Following the commissioner’s intervention, the structure and prospect appraisal was launched.