Optimism abounds in world without coal

5th April 1996 at 01:00
On the wall of the boardroom at Bridgend College are portraits of principals since it opened as a mining institute in 1928. For most of its history the college, at the foot of the South Wales valleys, has been closely connected with mining.

The college's vice principal, Godfrey Hurley, remembers: "When I came here in 1970 mining engineering was by far the largest sector in the college. There were about 20 mines in the catchment area. The emphasis was very much on part-time day-release courses for apprentices from the collieries."

The mines closed in the area long ago and now the major employers are big foreign-owned firms such as Ford, Sony and Bosch. As the industrial scene has changed, so have the demands on the college.

Principal Roger Hampton, whose background is in information technology, says: "We have a commitment to the growth of the local economy. It's vital that we provide a well-trained workforce to encourage further investment."

Initiatives to meet the challenge include setting up a business centre on the college site. Its manager, Adrian Beynon, is employed full-time to forge links with local employers, and develop training to meet their requirements. This benefits the multinationals and local jobseekers. "We're looking for long-term relationships so that the college can help industry meet its objectives and serve the community at the same time," he says.

The college runs courses to train engineers as electricians and vice versa, management courses up to post-graduate level, and a range of courses for local companies ranging from languages - the college is responsible for teaching German to Bosch's entire workforce - to computer skills.

Bridgend also prides itself on its provision for youngsters with special needs, its trade union training - it runs the only such courses left in South Wales - and its academic record. A high proportion of students go on to higher education.

There is optimism in the air at Bridgend. Since incorporation three years ago it has spent around Pounds 5 million on new buildings and is continuing to invest heavily. A new Pounds 2 million engineering block opened last year and a smart admissions centre is almost ready. A travel and tourism centre is due to be completed later this year.

A particularly successful project is the satellite college at Maesteg, a former mining town. The old labour exchange was bought and renovated and now provides a range of courses from basic skills to information technology. Maesteg College is now a bustling centre and is highly-valued by local residents in an area of high unemployment.

Bridgend College is linking with Afan College in nearby Port Talbot to open a part-time training centre. And after competing with local schools to sign up 16-year-olds, it is hoping to increase collaboration. All the local school headteachers now regularly meet college leaders to co-ordinate provision.

The college's new ventures reflect a huge increase in student numbers, up by about 30 per cent since incorporation. This year there were about 10,000 enrolments.

But, like many other colleges in Wales, Bridgend faces uncertainty. Its budget, about Pounds 11 million this year, is expected to remain at roughly the same level next year despite an expected rise in student numbers of between 5 per cent and 10 per cent.

Putting a brake on student numbers is not considered an option. "It would mean having to turn students away and that's not what we want in our local community," says Mr Hampton. "We will attempt to satisfy demand and hope to persuade the funding authorities that extra money is needed."

One change which would help, says Mr Hampton, would be to put funding for higher education courses on the same footing as in England, where colleges are funded directly. Bridgend has about 500 students on HE courses franchised from the Universities of Glamorgan, the University College of Wales and Cardiff Institute of Higher Education. The present system is administratively cumbersome and means Bridgend is not fully funded for the courses.

The college welcomes Sir Ron Dearing's proposals to put vocational and academic courses on an equal footing. Staff believe it is important for young people to feel that what they are doing is valued.

But funding is still the major worry, and the current uncertainty makes planning difficult. "They talk to us about long-term planning," says Mr Hampton, "But it doesn't matter how good your five- year plan is if they pull the plug on your budget three months before the start of the financial year."

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