Mike Hopkins has more experience than most principals of overseeing college mergers. In January of this year South and City College Birmingham, which he heads, received its second successive grade 2 Ofsted, despite having absorbed two failing colleges in the past seven years. FE Week asked how they managed it
In 2012, before area reviews were even a twinkle in the FE commissioner’s eye (in fact before the role of commissioner was established), South Birmingham College found out that its neighbour, City College Birmingham, was in dire financial straits.
“It wasn’t until they’d exhausted pretty much everything, that they then had a conversation with us,” says Mike Hopkins, then the South Birmingham College principal.
The two colleges shared a campus and had worked closely over the years, so their fates were already intertwined.
We had to absorb everything in terms of the financial impact
“What we couldn’t be in a position for at that time was to have a competitor take over a college that was on our campus,” Hopkins says, leaning back in his chair at the Bournville campus of what is now South and City College Birmingham, a 25,000-learner general FE college spread over eight campuses across the south and centre of the city.
South Birmingham stepped in, taking over City College “with no support from the government. We had to absorb everything in terms of the financial impact,” Hopkins says. The college went from financial good health to taking on millions in debt, some of which is still being paid off.
But it wasn’t just the finances that left it to sink or swim. “To be honest at the point at which we signed all the documents, all the various agencies said, ‘Oh, thank you very much’, and we didn’t hear from them again. We were on speed dial until then, and they just disappeared.”
It took three years of slog to get systems integrated, staff aligned, and the finances back on an even keel. They told tutors to forget about the finance and focus on the students, but behind the scenes the admin team was working frantically to stay afloat. Hopkins describes the period as being like a “swan going across the water, you don’t see the legs going mad”.