Cost-cutting reorganisations and redundancies are under way at several colleges and others are contemplating merger as a way out of the financial mire. Broomfield College in Derbyshire is due to serve redundancy notices next week on nearly all of its lecturing staff. The college - a leading centre for the teaching of organic farming and countryside management - is laying off 31 of its 34 teachers and inviting them to re-apply for the same jobs on salaries cut by up to 25 per cent.
At Kirkley College in Northumberland, principal Joanna Martin resigned last month after staff protests over plans to make four lecturers redundant. New principal Bob Thomason, who is in talks with a nearby university over possible merger, described the college's financial position as "delicate".
Houghall College near Durham has also announced plans to lay off some of its 30 staff including four branch officers of the lecturers' union NATFHE.
The Lincoln School of Agriculture and Horticulture at De Montfort University begins shedding 17 of its 60 lecturing staff at Christmas. Andy Marley, a lecturer at the college who is agricultural representative on NATFHE's national executive, said that even a few redundancies could have grave repercussions in colleges with a small staff, many of whom were the only specialists in their field.
"If only two or three people go, that doesn't sound much, but it could mean that they lose the only person that specialises in a certain area. But some colleges are in such debt they can't easily see a way out." In-house farms and nurseries which have traditionally provided a significant proportion of many colleges' income have begun making losses, forcing some principals to restructure their land-based activities. Easton College in Norfolk is in talks with neighbouring farms over plans to cut overheads by merging their operations, and Hadlow College in Kent has leased its greenhouse nursery - one of the largest in Western Europe - to commercial growers.
Convergence - the FEFC requirement for colleges to standardise their spending per head - is likely to hit agricultural and horticultural colleges particularly hard. All but three of the 30 colleges listed in the FEFC's performance indicators published in September this year had average levels of funding above the target of Pounds 16.20 that colleges must meet by 2001.
Their overall average ALF was #163;19.29 - nearly #163;2 more than that of FE colleges as a whole.
The plight of the sector has begun to attract the attention of further education's authorities. The FEFC have commissioned a special report on agricultural colleges due in the New Year and the Further Education Development Agency have launched a series of regional feasibility studies involving 34 colleges looking at possible collaboration. Howard Petch, chief executive of NAPAEO, the organisation representing principals of agricultural colleges, said that colleges heavily dependent on farming for their income were struggling but that others had been relatively unaffected.
He said David Blunkett's recent announcements on student support for transport and residential costs were welcome news for a sector that had been badly affected by the withdrawal of discretionary grants. And he urged ministers and those involved in the sector to look beyond the present economic climate.