'Local' means within 5,500 square miles

When staff at Easton College talk of their local catchment area, they mean 5,500 square miles of sparsely-populated countryside with economic needs to match the most impoverished city centres.

The college, near Norwich, is a typical county college of agriculture and horticulture. Apart from its local students, it draws people from further afield nationally in key areas such as poultry and pig-farming, where it has a national reputation for excellence.

Around a third of its Pounds 3.6 million annual budget comes from the Further Education Funding Council. The rest is from its farm, industry sponsorship and the local training and enterprise council.

It recently cut back drastically from four sites to one, housing 300 full-time and 3,000 part-time students, most studying agriculture, horticulture or related subjects. These include equestrian studies, floristry, animal care, conservation, rural business studies, and training for the poultry and meat-processing industries.

Norfolk has poor public transport, and a large part of the county is designated as an area of rural deprivation.

For the principal David Lawrence, it is a nightmare trying to make Easton accessible to students who have to travel for up to eight hours a day on a succession of trains and buses from remote corners of the Broads.

On average, the college draws one-and-a-half students from each ward in the county. Some areas have no public transport, while in others it runs only on certain days of the week.

The impact of cuts in discretionary awards and rising transport costs has been devastating. Students must contribute Pounds 141 a year to their travel costs. Many of Mr Lawrence's potential students are mature learners. Some simply cannot afford to study, others drop out, and many just struggle to survive.

Easton College has 100 residential places. Discretionary awards are available for accommodation, but they are limited in value and difficult for mature students to get.

The college has a special fund to help needy students and can also draw on funds from two local charities. But these do not go far. By the end of the year it is not unusual for hostel occupancy to drop to 60 per cent or less for full-time students.

"The real issue is not whether or not I am able to fill my hostels, it is about whether or not those people are able to continue in education, and the answer often is they cannot because they cannot afford to," said Mr Lawrence.

"I find it particularly frustrating that you have a substantial number of people who are being debarred from further education purely on financial grounds. We are actually discriminating against that quite able pool of people that would benefit from vocational education."

Mature students need to update their skills regularly but cannot afford to, he said. Then there were the costs involved in marketing the college's poultry and pig-farming courses further afield. In order to survive, in recent years Easton has increased class sizes, reduced the number of teaching hours, and rationalised its staffing structure.

"We are determined to survive come hell or high water," Mr Lawrence said. But cuts in growth cash, TEC grants and discretionary awards have made problems worse. "Most of our work is high-cost. We are not getting the funding that we need to do the job. This is making life extremely difficult."

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