Administered college gets ‘direct’ role in sale of provision

Troubled K College is back on the market — this time with its own corporation playing a greater role in the sale after the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) tendering process proved unsuccessful last year.

Three bidders had approached the SFA to take on the college after a competitive tendering process, but talks ended without agreement.

But now interim principal Phil Frier has told FE Week that he expected to find new providers and have handed over the college’s SFA and Education Funding Agency provision by August.

“We’re working closely with both funding agencies, but we are now going to be able to engage with new providers directly,” he said.

“We’ll be having discussions with them over the next two months so that we are able to transfer the assets of the college over by August this year.

“I think those discussions will lead us to being clear about who the preferred providers are by February.”

Mr Frier declined to comment on who the potential providers were.

The Kent college is currently in administered status, having been visited by FE Commissioner David Collins after an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted inspection result last month.

The move stripped college management of the ability to make many key decisions independently, instead having to seek approval of the commissioner and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

“The intervention of the FE Commissioner and the Skills Minister has been very helpful because it has put back in the hands of the corporation some key decisions,” said Mr Frier.

He added: “I think with hindsight everyone agrees that the competition process slowed things down and the procurement process forced a straightjacket which created difficulties.

“It is easy looking back to see that we could have done it differently and the college could have been more directly involved from the start.”

The SFA would still have a “significant” role to play, he said, both financially and in terms of “decision making”.

“But ultimately the involvement of the FE Commissioner means there is now a channel from the corporation through the commissioner, to the department directly to the Minister,” said Mr Frier.

“And the discussion I had with the commissioner was that that’s the route now that will finalise the decision making.”

The college, formed by a merger between West Kent College and South Kent College in 2010, ran into financial difficulties which lead to the resignation of then-principal Bill Fearon in January last year.

When Mr Frier took over, he conceded the merger had “failed”, and the college faced being broken up and sold off through a tendering process run by the SFA, to which the college owed £15m, as well as commercial debts.

Mr Frier said: “Commercial debts will be transferred to the new provider.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that — you’d expect to take on the mortgage as well as the house.”

But he said the liabilities to the funding agencies were “still up for discussion”.

During the initial competition process, the college was divided up to be sold off in seven parts.

An SFA spokesperson said: “The agency received tenders from three bidders which covered all seven application options for the procurement.

“Unfortunately all of the bids were unsuccessful which meant that we were unable to proceed any further.

“We will now be working with K College on the transfer of provision and learners to alternative providers by August 2014.”

Parties should email to express an interest in taking over provision at K College.

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