Smallest FE college makes a big deal to stay viable

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Leek to merge with University of Derby in bid to secure its future

As the smallest general FE college in England, life is not easy for Leek College. With government funding getting ever tighter, Tina Heathcote, chair of the corporation, admits that retaining the status quo "is not an option".

"It has become increasingly clear to the corporation of Leek College that, even with excellent financial management and improving student results year on year, the continuing decrease in funding is likely to tip the balance towards the college becoming financially unviable in the future," she said.

This summer, the Staffordshire college plans to become the first to make use of powers created in the new Education Act coming into force next month, which will allow it to take a bold step: dissolving itself.

But this does not represent the 1,000-student college throwing in the towel, far from it. Leek is hoping to secure its future by making the unusual move of merging with its neighbour, the University of Derby.

While mergers between FE institutions are relatively common, a college joining forces with a higher education provider is a rare occurrence. And the omens are not necessarily auspicious: Reading College hoped to secure the future of FE provision in the town when it merged with the former Thames Valley University in 2004, but the ill-fated relationship was terminated just six years later.

Leek instead prefers to point to the example of its neighbour, Buxton College, which joined forces with the University of Derby in 1998; 14 years on, the partnership is still going strong.

With Leek College's 175th birthday coming up this autumn, governors at the institution have been undergoing what the merger consultation document described as "almost two years of intense scrutiny, discussion and analysis".

"So," it added, "aware of a range of factors - our position as the smallest college of general further education, our good reputation, local and national requirements of colleges and the need to offer choice - we have and will continue, as always, to put our students and the community at the heart of our deliberations. Over the last two years, we have spoken to and met with a range of institutions, some of whom have approached us and some we have approached."

The document also revealed that the merger with Derby was proposed by the university, which says it "is delighted that the corporation of Leek College sees its future within the (university) group". The consultation on the plans comes to an end next month. The Skills Funding Agency will then report on the scheme, and Derby and Leek will respond to the public consultation before the merger, proposed for 31 July, is completed.

Should the move get the green light, Leek's property, rights and liabilities will be transferred to Derby. All current students who have not completed their courses by the date of the dissolution will be able to complete their studies with the University of Derby. "Under the proposal," the consultation document said, "Leek College will retain its own name, identity and physical presence within the centre of Leek, and it will work more closely with Buxton College, which is part of the University of Derby Group."

While, at around #163;12 million, the combined turnover of the colleges is small by FE standards, the proposed merger "offers sufficient economies of scale to ensure the future of both Leek and Buxton Colleges". The link with the University of Derby will also allow Leek to tap into its academic expertise and expand its curriculum in national and regional priority areas, particularly in the fields of sustainable construction, low carbon and bioscience. A range of new logistics and manufacturing apprenticeships are also in the pipeline, thanks to the business expertise available at the university.

Financial savings are also expected, with Leek and Buxton hoping to achieve economies of scale through joining forces in areas such as marketing, back-office functions and IT infrastructure. However, the report does warn that larger teaching groups could be brought in to make additional savings.

The chair of the college corporation will also be offered a seat on the university governing council, in a bid to ensure that the college retains its voice and influence in the new structure.

This lone voice will have to shout loudly if Leek is to continue to make itself heard. But Leek College clearly believes that, if it is to avoid getting swept away by the precarious currents coursing through the FE sector, its best chance of survival is to become a small fish in a much larger pond.

Big fish, little fish

23,000 - Learner numbers at the University of Derby

1,000 - Learner numbers at Leek College.

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