£120m high-tech colleges slow to spark into life

15th December 2017 at 00:00
National colleges criticised as expensive ‘localised hubs’ running behind schedule

Unveiled in 2016, national colleges were described by government as “centres of high-tech training” that would deliver the “workforce of tomorrow” in industries crucial to economic growth.

And it was promised that there would be no shortage of financial support, with government, local enterprise partnerships, FE providers and local authorities pledging to back the five proposed institutions, focused on specialist training at levels 4-6, to the tune of more than £120 million.

But 19 months on, a Tes investigation has revealed that the three colleges that have opened have around 350 students and apprentices between them, with two of the colleges operating out of temporary sites. The National College for the Creative and Cultural Industries (NCCCI) says it has had a “successful first year” with a cohort of 11 students and that it is “pleased” to have 25 students and 86 apprentices on its books this year.

‘Unproven institutions’

Of the institutions yet to open, the National College for Nuclear is expected to launch two “hubs” in Cumbria and Somerset in February 2018 – five months behind schedule. And the National College for Onshore Oil and Gas (NCOOG) – intended to train workers for the controversial fracking industry – had also been due to open in September, but its future is in doubt, with no new opening date confirmed.

The University and College Union says it is concerned that millions of pounds have been pumped into a handful of “as-yet-unproven institutions” while existing colleges ”struggle to deal with the impact of budget cuts”. “This approach only fragments our further education system and deprives communities of valuable local learning opportunities,” says general secretary Sally Hunt, who calls on government to “take a more holistic approach”.

Ian Pretty, chief executive of the Collab Group of FE colleges, says too many “are ‘national’ in name only”. “Where a national college is not based on place – such as the national colleges for digital skills and creative industries – they have become little more than localised hubs with very small student enrolments operating in direct competition with existing provision from FE colleges,” he adds.

Ada, the National College for Digital Skills and the NCCCI opened in September 2016. A spokesperson for the former says that it has 110 sixth-form students enrolled – close to the capacity allowed by its current site in North London. This is expected to rise to 150 for 2018-19. It also has 63 apprentices working with “blue-chip employers”, such as Google, Deloitte and EY, set to reach 180 next year.

“We are on track with our business plan...to educate 7,500 students in advanced digital skills by 2023,” the spokesperson adds.

NCCCI’s enrolment target for 2018-19 is 208 students across 12 courses. Principal Jane Button says the college was “designed to fill the current skills gap and ensure the future success of the creative industries”.

The National College for High-Speed Rail, with sites in Birmingham and Doncaster, was opened in October. The college tells Tes it currently has “more than 60 learners”, with 140 expected to be offered places across the next two intakes in January and May. It has received more than 400 applications to date.

Chief executive Clair Mowbray says: “We are generating interest and excitement from people who want to begin a highly rewarding career in high-speed rail.”

Ken Cronin, chief executive of UK Onshore Operations Group, representing the onshore oil and gas industry, says: “It has always been our intention to cement the foundations of NCOOG ahead of offering training.”

A Department for Education spokesperson says: “National colleges are brand-new institutions which are currently in the early stages of development. As they develop, learner numbers are expected to significantly increase.”

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