The former chief executive of Hull College Group received £219,000 last year, despite only being in post for 67 days. 

Payments to Michelle Swithenbank are revealed in the published accounts alongside external auditor findings that a £300,000 three-year deal she signed with a local rugby club breached the college’s financial regulations. 

External auditors reveal in the published 2019/20 accounts that the stadium naming rights and shirt sponsorship deal was “only signed by one authorised signatory who was the corporation’s accounting officer in office during the year [Swithenbank], and neither were the agreements approved by the corporation”. 

The college chair at the time, Dafydd Williams, confirmed to FE Week that the “contract [with Hull Kingston Rovers] was never brought to the board for discussion or approval and was signed off by individual executives without our knowledge”. 

The auditors also found the college “failed to discharge its duty of care with regard to the novel nature of these transactions” as they ignored legal advice and no evidence was found for any business case or value for money analysis. 

Swithenbank led Hull College Group until taking a leave of absence on October 7, 2019 when Williams commissioned an unrelated investigation into financial misconduct. 

Two months later, on December 20, Williams emailed all staff to announce that the investigation had found “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”. 

The true cost of the deal with Hull KR only came to light earlier this year following an FE Week freedom of information request and subsequent intervention from the Information Commissioner’s Office. 

After reporting the deal in FE Week, interim chief executive, Lowell Williams, then launched his own investigation with internal auditors, which is due to report later this month. 

Williams, who departs later this month when the first permanent chief executive since Swithenbank’s departure takes over, said “enquiries are ongoing” concerning the “irregular transaction” and he was “confident that the corporation will take appropriate action” – not ruling out the college could seek to recover some or all of the payoff.

The college accounts detail a total of £390,000 spent on the chief executive post in the 12 months from August 1, 2019 until July 31, 2020, compared to £140,000 in the previous financial year. 

This consisted of £162,000 contractual and £57,000 non-contractual payments for Swithenbank, with the remaining £171,000 spent on three interim chief executives. 

Hull College Group hit the headlines several years ago after requiring a £50 million bailout from the government as part of a ‘Fresh Start’ process that preceded several hundred staff being made redundant. 

And in recent weeks staff were informed the college would be disposing of their campus in Goole in July 2021, leaving the group with just their main campus at Queens Gardens in the city centre, a motor vehicle centre on Cannon Street (close to the city centre) and a construction centre in East Hull.

 

‘What is now revealed is unacceptable and inexcusable’

On hearing of the payoff and auditor findings, the University and College Union’s head of further education Andrew Harden told FE Week: “We can’t undo the events of the past but what is now revealed is completely unacceptable and inexcusable. 

“The levels of mismanagement and poor governance that have occurred leading up to and since the financial crisis at the college should not impact on students or staff in the way they have. Staff have worked extraordinarily hard for their students and are completely committed to restoring the reputation of the college. 

“It is unacceptable that further wrongdoing has continued since the ‘Fresh Start’ approved by the FE Commissioner and monitored and scrutinised by his teams. 

“Given the college acknowledges financial and audit regulations have not been followed, it is only right and proper that the leaders who have overseen these issues should be held to account.” 

Swithenbank was approached for comment.