Troubled colleges braced for bad news

19th January 2001 at 00:00
Staff at two colleges are facing a bleak new year, as they brace themselves for possible redundancies

AS the new year begins, some colleges face troubled times as they prepare to transfer to the new learning and skills regime.

A financial crisis is threatening the future of Soundwell College, near Bristol, whose principal, David Ekin-Smyth, has been on leave since the new year.

The college is currently run by vice-principal John McDougall. Managers have had a series of meetings with the Further Education Funding Council. Among options being considered are merger. The two nearest FE colleges are about five miles away. While the college admits that closure is a theoretical option, it says that, in reality, provision will be safeguarded.

Soundwell's finances were severely criticised by the funding council when the college was inspected in March 2000. Its governance and management, graded four, were considered generally unsatisfactory. At the time of inspection, the accounts for 1998-99 remained unsigned.

In particular, Soundwell, which serves north-east Bristol and South Gloucestershire, was criticised for over-optimistic financial forecasts that led to the "underachievement of funding targets". As a result, it had to repay pound;1.6 million to the FEFC. The college's debt is thought to exceed pound;1.5m. This year the college expects to record a deficit of pound;256,000.

Although a decision about Soundwell's future has yet to be made, staff have been made aware of the crisis. One insider called the position "desperate", though there is yet to be a formal discussion about possible redundancies. The college has around 7,000 students and 500 staff.

Inspectors found that Soundwell's ineffective management information system meant the college was slow to realise that it owed the FEFC money. It also failed to ensure prompt financial and student data returns. Management weaknesses were played down, and governance relied too heavily on a few individuals.

Further talks between staff representatives and officialsfrom the lecturers' union NATFHE were taking place as FE Focus was going to press. "We are very anxious to save FE in this area," said one official.

The college is recognised as a centre of excellence in motor vehicle technology. Bob Coleman vice-chairman of the governing body, said: "We are determined to find a recovery plan that will allow the college to continue providing courses for the local community, and for the motor industry regionally and nationally."

Oaklands College, in St Alban's, Hertfordshire, is also starting the new year with bad news.

The college has failed to reach its student targets and will have to repay pound;1.5m to the funding council. It will be left with a "significant" operating deficit of of pound;800,000. The college expects to be significantly below target again for the current year, with the need for another FEFC clawback.

Nearly 60 staff have been advised that they are "at risk" of being made redundant and the college is likely to need to shed some 50 posts. Management is consulting with the unions, and intends to make decisions by the end of next month.

The college says its deficit can be attributed to a fall in student demand during a period when it allocated resources at a higher rate than it earned income. This included, it points out, paying the nationally recommended pay award to all staff every year since incorporation.

Harvey Ward, a spokesman for NATFHE, said: "We are very concerned about the number of redundancies and the speed of the process. We are exploring the reasons given for the redundancies as we do not necessarily agree with them."

Liz Cristofoli, principal of Oaklands College, said: "It is a serious situation but not a critical one. It is as much about preparing for the future as anything else. It is regrettable to lose 50 posts but it is 50 out of more than 1,000."

Ms Cristofoli, who is shortly to leave the college to become an educational consultant, has been appointed to the board of the Hertfordshire Learning and Skills Council.

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