In 2010, its plans for redevelopment were shelved as the college capital programme collapsed. But now, as the hub of a trust backing two academies and a studio school, Bradford College is in charge of one of the largest building programmes in FE, valued at about #163;100 million.
The project aims not only to refurbish out-of-date facilities but also to reinvent the classroom, taking inspiration from reforms at places such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, which has abandoned the lecture theatre for a more collaborative style of learning.
Bradford principal Michele Sutton said that the project represented a downsizing from its original #163;120 million bid to the Learning and Skills Council, but that the college risked losing students if it did not improve its facilities. "We have had to find a way to finance and resource a new build," she said. "Doing nothing would have cost us quite a lot of money."
The college saved money by reducing the floorspace of the new building and reducing the cost of some exterior materials. Its main campus rebuild is costing #163;50 million: about #163;35 million of that is borrowed. Add to that the #163;20 million of work completed so far, rebuilds of its two academies and the studio school funded with money from the Department for Education, and the total spend is more than #163;100 million.
Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggests that the investment is likely to pay off: it found that investment in buildings improved recruitment and helped to make colleges less dependent on public funds, particularly if the capital spend was more than #163;60 million. Each #163;1 million spent on improving buildings increased student recruitment by up to 86 students a year, although the research did not find the expected evidence for an improvement in retention and achievement.
Even when government investment in college buildings was at its height, officials expected colleges to be more efficient in their use of space. Bradford's rebuild has taken that to heart: to maximise the use of space, even specialist facilities such as science labs will be shared.
"Our architects and project managers who work for the FE sector believe that what we are doing is leading the way with different learning environments and we are way ahead of the game," Ms Sutton said. "We're thinking about how to transform the way that learning is delivered in the 21st century."
She acknowledged that dealing with less space may mean more online learning and using methods of teaching other than the traditional lecture format. "There will be less time in traditional classrooms. That's not to say that there will be less time with a teacher, tutor or trainer," she said.
In the MIT model, lecturers are surrounded by their students in large learning areas. A similar approach has been advocated by Chris Morecroft, former Association of Colleges president and former principal of Worcester College of Technology, who urged colleges to adopt "study centres", with students carrying out more independent learning with support from their tutors. He argued that it was less expensive and potentially more effective than traditional teaching methods.
But Mr Morecroft acknowledged that colleges may face complaints from students and parents about the amount of teaching time, warning that cuts to resources could see students in class for only two days a week.
Bradford, however, also hopes to make use of its position as the only FE college with a contract to train primary and secondary teachers. Now that it sponsors two academies, it hopes to use its teacher training department to improve the struggling schools, and for the schools to offer practical experience to its trainees, including those on health and social services courses.
Appleton Academy, which the college took over in 2009, is now out of special measures, but it still has an Ofsted grade of "requires improvement". Samuel Lister Academy was taken over last year. Both academies offer A levels, as does the college, but Ms Sutton said each institution specialised so she expected them to collaborate more than compete. "Our vision is that we have a community of learning that goes from nursery age to however old our oldest FE learners are," Ms Sutton said.