The Skills Funding Agency is considering taking legal action against a university to protect further education provision in a landmark case that could have far-reaching consequences across the sector.
The University of Lincoln is planning to redevelop a portion of its Riseholme campus, just outside the city, which is currently being leased to Riseholme College – part of Bishop Burton College – to offer land-based agricultural programmes.
This provision could be threatened by the university’s £20 million proposal to overhaul the site. The plan includes hundreds of homes, as well as research, science, heritage and sports facilities.
Words and deeds
TES understands that the move, which would generate millions of pounds for the university, is being opposed by Riseholme College as well as the local farming community.
The SFA, which funded some of the facilities on the site, believes that an “asset deed” is in place. This was originally drawn up when De Montfort University took over the running of Riseholme Agricultural College from Lincolnshire County Council in 1994. The site was bought by the University of Lincoln in 2001. The SFA told TES that this document specified the land must be used for FE, and added that it was considering how to “protect the assets”.
One legal expert has suggested that more deeds of this kind could be drawn up as mergers between universities and colleges become more commonplace as a result of the area review process.
“We are considering what steps we will take in order to protect the assets at the Riseholme campus for the delivery of further education,” an SFA spokeswoman said. “There is an asset deed in place which protects facilities at the Riseholme Campus for further education delivery.”
The university’s proposal is also opposed by the Lincoln Farm Trust Panel. Chairman Charles Dobson said: “I want the SFA to take the University of Lincoln to court.
'We need to protect the use of the facility for FE for the future of our workforce'
“I am really hoping that the university will realise that the SFA is serious about this, because we need to…protect the use of the facility for FE for the future of our workforce.
“A lot of my staff were trained there, and it is very important for us to have an agricultural college here. We are not interested in HE, we are really only interested in FE, because that is what is needed in the industry.”
The college recently finished building a new campus at the nearby Lincolnshire Showground, but it insists that this was intended to supplement rather than replace the Riseholme facility. Its lease of the Riseholme site comes to an end in 2020.
Jeanette Dawson, principal of Bishop Burton College, said: “We are extremely proud to be able to deliver land-based further education in Lincolnshire, and our students are our main priority.”
Elly Sample, director of communications at the University of Lincoln, stressed that it was committed to supporting the county’s agriculture and food-manufacturing industries through education, training and research.
“Our Riseholme campus remains an important part of that effort,” she said. “We have made clear our ambitions to invest heavily at our Riseholme campus in new educational facilities to support agri-tech, science, heritage and sport.
“It is important to remember that a significant investment of public money has been made to enable Bishop Burton College to build and relocate to a new, state-of-the-art site near Lincoln where it continues to deliver high-quality land-based further education for the benefit of the county.”
Property lawyer Eve Gregory, a partner at law firm DAC Beachcroft, said the outcome of any legal case would be determined by the terms of the asset deed and whether the university’s proposals complied with them.
If no agreement is reached, TES understands that the case could end up going to court.
Ms Gregory added that restructuring in the sector as a result of the area reviews could make asset deeds more commonplace, particularly in the case of mergers between universities and colleges. Consultations on the University of Bolton’s plans to merge with Bury College and Bolton College closed in May and June respectively.