Pioneer spirit pays at Lauder

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Few colleges have stood still since incorporation, but Lauder College has been transformed more than most.

It is an appropriate legacy of history that a college inspired by the uncle of Andrew Carnegie (George Lauder) and endowed by Carnegie himself should be imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit - to the extent that only 42 per cent of the college's income last year came from the FE funding council, compared with the sector average of 60 per cent. Commercial contracts brought in 39 per cent of earnings.

The approach is personified by Janet Lowe, the principal, who comments: "We keep hearing about financial problems in the colleges. We don't have financial problems: we have financial innovation."

Ms Lowe played host last week to the Princess Royal who officially opened the college's latest pound;3.5 million facilities - AdvanTech for computing and information technology and Media Space for the arts and creative studies.

These developments represent the midway point of Lauder's estates strategy - an pound;8 million capital investment programme to date which, remarkably, has received only pound;750,000 from the FE funding council.

Equally remarkably, the public private partnership (PPP) has barely had a look in.

The college says this represents a leverage of more than 10:1 and believes no other college has achieved this level of external funding. "And this is only the first phase," Anthony Winney, the marketing and PR manager, states.

Ms Lowe says that, once the college decided it would make no sense to move from its highly advantageous site off the M90 on the edge of Dunfermline, it set about renovating its estate - beginning with something that would generate income and pay for further developments.

And so its well regarded and accessible pound;3 million business learning and conference centre was born, funded by a mixture of cash from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the Clydesdale Bank. This profit-making venture brought in business from conferences to dinner dances and paved the way for what was to follow.

What followed was a remarkable partnership between the college and Babcock Engineering which created Babcock Lauder Technology in Rosyth, described by Ms Lowe as a "win-win" for both organisations and for students. BLT, as it is inevitably known, provides training for the company's staff as well as for college students, who work with industry-standard equipment provided by Babcock which renovated the premises.

The AdvanTech facility opened by Princess Anne was a more traditional mix of money from the funding council and from the ERDF.

But perhaps the Media Space development is the most remarkable of all. Ms Lowe had her eye on the building which continued to be operated by Fife Regional Council after incorporation as an old-style adult training centre.

Its transformation into a modern centre for the arts is due to another partnership through private business sponsorship - "a mini-PPP", as the principal describes it.

Bill Fletcher, a local builder and businessman, acquired the building from the local authority and set about creating a remarkable space for a whole range of creative activities, from painting and drama to digital design and complementary therapies.

Mr Fletcher, managing director of Linklever Development and himself a former Lauder student, now leases Media Space to the college at what he describes as "a rental the college finds attractive". He pays tribute to the way Ms Lowe positively engages with the business community and says:

"She should start a course on how to drive a hard bargain."

"Ours is a mixed-model approach to financing capital assets," Ms Lowe says.

"One of the important features is that different approaches were used for different projects rather than bundling everything into one mega-project. I am certainly not convinced that a full PPP is the answer to our needs."

Lauder's general approach is to use public funds for what benefits the public sector and, as with the BLT development, to expect that the private sector pays for what benefits it.

"I have always believed the employer should pay for training," Ms Lowe says. "Otherwise they won't value it. But what they are then entitled to, and what I believe they get here, is quality training which is customised and which is delivered to industry standards."

AdvanTech for example, the new centre for advanced technology, had equipment provided by private businesses. Its entrance area, with social space, interview suites and group breakout rooms, is as far removed from the image of a "tech" as is possible. Another departure from old-style FE is the 247 operation which is available if students want it.

The mixed-economy approach favoured by Ms Lowe is now set to continue with the college board having approved a further pound;5 million worth of projects. These will be financed through the ERDF along with a variety of fund-raising activities.

This phase will see the launch of a new business school, nursery, improved facilities for the construction industry and a new suite of specialist rooms for students with learning difficulties or disabilities.

Lauder's ambitions extend beyond further education - but not, it insists, to become the University of West Fife. Ms Lowe points out that the client group is changing with the contraction of manufacturing and the creation of new housing bringing potential customers fleeing property prices in Edinburgh.

Lauder has responded by running a BEng in electronic manufacture and a BSc in network computing with Napier University and a BA in management with Heriot-Watt University. More degree programmes are planned and Ms Lowe sees the college's future in higher education as a "university portal".

"There have been no problems in recruiting students to these degree programmes," the principal comments. "They are attracted by the part-time nature of the provision. I firmly believe this is the way ahead for HE instead of the obsession with full-time programmes which, apart from anything else, doesn't quite match the rhetoric on lifelong learning."

Like the Carnegie story, Lauder's estates strategy turns out not to be just a financial story. The philanthropist endowed libraries, while the college funds developments that enhance facilities for students. There is certainly no sign of Lauder embracing the adage attributed to old Andrew that "pioneering does not pay".

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