A college principal spent £150,000 on a company credit card on five-star hotels and a lobster dinner at a Michelin-star restaurant while making job cuts and axing a sixth form.
Stella Mbubaegbu, principal of Highbury College, racked up tens of thousands of pounds in expenses in just four years on first-class flights and chauffeurs at a time when college finances deteriorated.
An education minister said he was “deeply concerned” by the figures and he has called for an urgent investigation.
The figures come at a time when staff have faced a pay freeze and redundancies in recent years, a union said. The further education college recently closed its sixth form amid budget pressures.
Highbury College’s latest accounts for the year to July 2018 show a deficit of £2.48m and board minutes from May warned of a “very limited safety net if cash ran out”.
The principal’s credit card receipts from 2014 to 2018, obtained by FE Week, show that Ms Mbubaegbu submitted claims for a £434 pair of headphones, a £356 lobster dinner for four people and a £175 chauffeured journey from Heathrow to Birmingham.
Moray McAulay, University and College Union’s regional officer, warned the spending on Michelin-starred meals and luxury hotels sent “a damaging message” about the college’s priorities.
He said: “It is all the more galling given that the college has been pleading poverty on pay – staff have not received a pay rise since 2013 and the college has cut jobs in recent years.
“Investing in students and staff to ensure that the local community can benefit from high-quality learning should always be the college’s top priority for spending.”
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Education minister, Lord Agnew, said: “The Secretary of State and I are deeply concerned by these revelations. I have already asked the FE Commissioner to urgently look into this matter.
“School and college leaders must treat taxpayers’ money with the utmost care and in a way that benefits their students. Where this does not happen we take the strongest possible action.”
But Ms Mbubaegbu defended the expenses claimed for international travel saying the work was done to increase the college’s reputation overseas and to create additional income.
“Chief executives of further education colleges have found ourselves under fire in recent years within a context in which there is extreme pressure to generate income to survive,” she said.
In a statement, the principal said her foreign travel helped to attract £2.5m of additional income from international business development activities over the past four years.
She added: “The [FE Week] story has attempted to paint a picture of me as a flagrant spend-thrift using College funds for my own personal gain. This is not the case.”
“The expenses referred to in the article were approved and authorised correctly and are also subject to independent audit in accordance with college procedures,” Ms Mbubaegbu said.
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The principal added that a large amount of the expenses was reimbursed to the college through grants or other funding and some expenses were to cover travel and CPD events for other staff.
The figures come after a report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) revealed this week that a government pledge to boost funding for sixth forms and colleges will leave them £1.1bn short of what they need to reverse cuts felt over the past nine years.
School sixth forms have faced budget cuts of 23 per cent since 2010-2011, and spending for colleges have declined by 12 per cent over the same period.