Troubled land college looks to future as merger takes shape
PUBLISHED: 06:06 05 October 2019
Every day is a packed one for the head of Suffolk New College – and with the countdown towards a hugely complicated college merger well under way, she is only going to get busier still.
"It's a busy day every day," she says. "There's a very detailed process that we have to go through and there also has not been a two-way split-merger of further education (FE) colleges for a long, long time."
Easton and Otley College - a split campus institution across Norfolk and Suffolk which only merged in 2012/13 - is being divided up again following two damning Ofsted reports in a row.
MORE - Farm and business sectors offer their support as Suffolk New College - Otley merger takes shape
Each arm will then be taken on by its nearest FE college - Suffolk New College in the case of Otley campus, which lies a few miles north of Ipswich, and Norwich City College in the case of Easton campus. The emphasis is on trying to make the transition as seamless as possible for students.
It's a highly bureaucratic process, with the plans subject to a consultation process started in August. Assuming all goes to plan, the changes are expected to take effect from the start of the new calendar year.
It won't be completely without pain - some jobs losses are likely to be on the cards post-merger - but leaders of the colleges are upbeat about what can be achieved in terms of a more rosy future for Otley.
Mrs Gillespie spent eight years as vice principal at Warwickshire College, itself formed in 1996 out a merger between a mainstream FE and a land college, so she is no stranger to the process. It also means she has an understanding of the land-based sector, and has stressed Suffolk New College's commitment to the agriculture and horticulture sectors.
"We are starting to get now organisations coming through and wanting to work with us and that's really important to us," she says.
Squeeze on FE budgets
This particular merger has added layers of complexity - although takeovers have become commonplace in the UK as already tight FE budgets continue to feel the squeeze. Overall spending per FE student has fallen by around 12% in real terms since 2010, according to the Nuffield Foundation.
"It's the way of the world at the moment," she admits. "There aren't that many stand-alone land based colleges yet for that very reason - that it's very expensive provision."
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Size of the two institutions
Suffolk New is by far the bigger entity with a turnover of about £19/20m and around 500 staff compared to Otley's £5m turnover and 179 staff. Suffolk New College has 3,800-plus students and apprentices compared to Otley's student roll of nearly 500 - excluding apprentices and short courses.
Mergers inevitably lead to upheaval and overlaps of functions - and generally mean job cuts, making it a worrying time for staff in particular. At the moment, she says, she can make no predictions on that score, but cuts are expected to be mainly back office. "The efficiencies do have to be made because, as we all know, unfortunately the funding has not been able to sustain (it) as a standalone college, given the high cost of land-based provision and the costs and cuts we have all had," she says. "I think people realise that efficiencies have to be made, but absolutely ensuring that the students have all the staff and resources that they need and we want to grow as well, so you don't grow by cutting to the bone."
Otley's 'vision wall'
To try to cut through some of the concerns and work a way through, Mrs Gillespie has set up a 'vision wall' at Otley to enable a dialogue, and is making herself available by visiting the campus regularly and making her presence known to staff. The college is also talking to unions including the University and College Union (UCU) and Unison.
"You have to bite the bullet," she says. "There are lots of things you can do to try and make it more viable - apprenticeships and partnerships."
Future growth opportunities
But now Otley will be part of a large, more financially healthy organisation - which also has a Leiston campus - and she sees a positive story for both sites, where the urban and rural sides can weave their different strengths together - and create opportunities for growth.
For example, she sees potential for Suffolk New College's highly successful Shelleys catering arm and Otley's land-based functions to form links, and also for "leisure learning". She sees scope for encouraging more urban-based youngsters into the farming industry, which is crying out for young recruits. At the moment there are 40 Otley students on full time farming courses and 79 on farming related apprenticeships - and rising. This compares to just 15 farm students at the time of the 2012/13 merger.
"We are looking to grow in all of the courses and to be seen as where young people who are interested in agriculture that's where they come, and I think in the future looking at how we could possible boost recruitment through our urban reach," she says.
She wants to make Otley "a bit of a destination". "At the moment there are no retail outlets and no outdoor equipment for children," she points out. The college is looking at how it can attract people onto campus and spend time there, fostering a welcoming atmosphere and providing a shop window for the farming industry and courses on site.
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