Desperate college seeks university take-over before merger consultation even begins

A struggling London college is preparing to hand over wide-ranging control of how it is run to a university, through a highly unusual move that does not require government approval.

The planned changes – which are currently under consultation and come months ahead of a planned formal merger – will see Lambeth College’s principal stripped of many of her responsibilities, and at least half of the college’s governors appointed by London South Bank University.

The changes are being proposed to the college’s instruments and articles of governance. The Department for Education confirmed to FE Week that these don’t need to be signed off by government.

According to the consultation page on the college’s website, the principal will have “a smaller list of mandatory duties, so that he or she can focus on the effective management of the college, the learners’ experience and a strong link to the university”.

Monica Box is currently interim principal, and responsibilities that she or a successor will relinquish to LSBU include preparing annual budgets, staffing arrangements, and the “strategic direction of the college”, it said.

The university is also set to take over the balance of power on the college’s board.

“Up to five” governors will be chosen from among LSBU governors and senior staff, plus the university’s vice chancellor “unless he or she chooses not to be a governor”.

The college will be represented by an employee and a learner, along with two or three independents, which are expected to be selected from the college’s current governors.

“All other governors of Lambeth College will resign,” the document explained.

Ms Box told FE Week the proposals “link the college more closely with its chosen strategic partner”.

They also “enable the college to benefit from the support of the senior management structure within the university” and “will strengthen the college’s capacity to improve ahead of the proposed full incorporation into the LSBU family”.

The changes appear to bypass the strict government rules on FE college mergers which stipulate that merger plans must be published – and a notice posted in at least one local newspaper – at least four months before the proposed date of merger.

But Ms Box added that the current consultation, which runs until June 9, “does not stand in place of the formal public consultation” on the college’s merger plans with LSBU – which do need government approval.

She said the new arrangements were due to take effect from mid-June – months ahead of any consultation on the merger expected in the autumn.

The current consultation comes after a report by former FE Commissioner Sir David Collins, published in March, but based on a visit to Lambeth in September, concluded the college was “no longer sustainable” unless it merged.

His visit had been prompted by a “significant deterioration” in the college’s finances, caused by poor financial management.

As previously reported by FE Week, the college was bailed out by Education and Skills Funding Agency last year after its projected deficit for 2015/16 ballooned from £500,000 to more than £5 million.

The merger with LSBU was one of three options proposed for Lambeth, which was rated as ‘requires improvement’ at its most recent Ofsted inspection in December, through the central London area review.

The other two possibilities were a link-up with Lewisham Southwark College, which subsequently joined up with NCG, and a partnership alongside City of Westminster College and the College of North West London.

The merger with the university was chosen as it was thought to offer operational stability, while helping to build clear learning pathways for students, a spokesperson told FE Week in December.

LSBU was unavailable to comment ahead of publication.

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  1. This is outrageous – far from ‘linking the college more closely’ it’s handing it over lock, stock and barrel! If it’s allowed to go through in this way LSBU will have a majority position on the board and so will be able dictate exactly what it can and cannot do. They should put forward a full proposal for consultation on what they intend to do with the college and its community assets BEFORE taking control using this tokenistic ‘consultation’ on governance technicalities.
    Makes one wonder what’s NOT being said. And the consultation is being run through the election period when local MPs and responsible Ministers are otherwise engaged. Where is the Commissioner on this? What money is being paid to LSBU? They also seem to be appointing a new Principal – rather circumventing any eventual consultation on a merger? If it’s even needed , that is! How can current governors – the same ones who presided over the mess the college is now in – decide to merge and then before that happens hand over the college to the proposed partner? They’re hardly going to carry out forensic due diligence on themselves and get the best deal forlocal learners, are they? I might not agree with a few of the recent London mergers but at least they’ve laid out what’s proposed and gone through a proper process. Biggest concern is if this goes through, what’s to stop any, or indeed all colleges, being taken over in the same way, by any organisation that is able to convince a board to do so? Worrying.

  2. Sarah

    I don’t think it is outrageous. This is a college which is no longer viable and has been struggling for a long time. A major change and disruption to existing situation is required; of the options available this is probably the best one. It will bring immediate financial stability and stronger governance. Hopefully the changes can help to make the college a success and useful community asset. However it will need all staff to engage and get behind the new structure and embrace the need for change. I speak as a resident of Lambeth and have no links to any of the organisations involved, except previously being a previous part-time evening student at Lambeth!

    • As you point out, the college isn’t viable and change is certainly required – but it has to be the right change and community stakeholders should have the opportunity to express their views on whatever is being proposed to help inform college governors/management. As for financial stability, the goverance changes being consulted on will do nothing to improve the college’s position per se as it will remain an independent charitable institution – just one controlled by another organisation. The assumed merger into the university at a ‘later date’ will be what may help financially, although the Area Review coverage seems to suggest that the university is not in fact willing to invest any of its own funds to turnaround the college – rather relying on a Government and ESFA bailout – hopefully, that’s no longer the case? Simply asking stakeholders to engage and get behind changes when no-one knows what they are, or the impact they will have is the issue here. A merger with LSBU may well be the best way forward but it ought to be carried out in the same way as any other merger – with transparency, proper scrutiny and due diligence. There may be plans for a follow up consultation on the formal merger but what real value would that have if the college is already controlled by the university? It needs to remembered that HE – FE mergers are not easy and there are many examples where universities have failed to deliver on the promised benefits and ended up handing colleges back (e.g. Reading) – another reason why plans ought to be published so that it is clear how this merger will avoid the potential issues that have got the better of others. Learners will be the ones who suffer if changes are rushed through in desperation. So, come on LSBU, show us your plans and consult on them along with any governance changes – I’m sure staff and other stakeholders will gladly rally behind them if they offer real improvement.