The fight for a vital slice of Government funding is hotting up among further education colleges all desperate for a multi-million pound boost to their future plans. Education Correspondent Tony Collins reports.
Colleges in the West Midlands are facing the unthinkable prospect of missing out on a massive cash lifeline.
The money needed to help fund 79 projects across the country, those which have already been approved “in principle” by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), has run out.
And that has left the colleges, including 16 in the West Midlands, now being asked to jump through further hoops in order to secure a share of the cash that they had always believed would be theirs.
Senior managers of Bournville College, Sutton Coldfield College, and Sandwell College are all pretty confident that their schemes will get the go-ahead.
That would spell great news for the local economies of Longbridge, Perry Barr and West Bromwich as they would stand to benefit from a total financial upsurge of more than £200?million.
Bournville College is planning an £84?million move from its present Bristol Road site to the former MG Rover site at Longbridge, Sandwell is hoping to relocate its existing campuses to a new £85?million building in West Bromwich, and Sutton Coldfield has hopes of building a new £42?million site on a former dairy in Perry Barr to consolidate its campuses in Great Barr and Erdington.
The 79 projects nationally which have received first stage approval from the LSC are in need of around £2.7?billion. But the head of a government inquiry asked to investigate the funding shambles has warned there is no more cash available.
That has now led to Bournville, Sandwell and Sutton Coldfield college chiefs being asked to fill in questionnaires, received from the LSC this week, aimed at pushing forward their respective schemes.
But such a move can only increase the risk of a wedge being driven between the colleges as they compete for a share of an inadequate pot.
Bournville and Sandwell are both pointing to the regeneration benefits of their capital projects, particularly with Bournville’s move being seen as crucial to the whole Longbridge redevelopment.
But that has drawn a somewhat barbed response from Christine Braddock, the principal of Sutton Coldfield College, which is looking to transform 22,000 square metres of the former Express Dairy site in Aldridge Road, Perry Barr.
Ms Braddock said: “My argument is that the educational needs of the students are the same no matter if they are in a regeneration scheme.
“Our students in Perry Barr or Great Barr have just as much need as any other student. Their need is just the same whether they are in a regeneration scheme or not.”
Ms Braddock, who has been invited to give evidence on the college funding crisis to the Commons education and skills select committee in May, said the questionnaire indicated a change of approach by the LSC.
She said they were required to complete the questionnaire without delay in preparation for a priority list of college capital schemes to be drawn up.
“It has been sent to all colleges which have previously received approval in principle,” she said.
“It is asking generally how ready are you and what is already in place, such as planning, the tendering process, development scheme.
“We are hopeful we will go up the priority list as there isn’t anything we have been asked for that we haven’t done. If we were asked to go ahead tomorrow, we would be ready.
“Before we were stopped, everything was in place – land purchased, planning permission obtained, development scheme in place.”
Both Bournville and Sandwell are confident that regeneration will play a big part in deciding who comes out on top in the race for funding.
Sandwell College vice principal Scott Upton said: “We remain convinced that we are one of the highest priorities because of the part our scheme plays in the redevelopment of West Bromwich.
“I think the emphasis has shifted to more of a needs basis and we are confident that we will fall into that pot.
“Our project is integral to the redevelopment of West Bromwich as a whole. The college is the first domino in that redevelopment and will enable all the others to fall into place.”
Bournville College was recently boosted by a visit from Erdington MP and Skills Minister Sion Simon.
Principal Norman Cave said: “We had a very productive meeting with Sion Simon and were heartened by the support the Minister gave to the project, although obviously there are no guarantees.
“We believe that with Bournville being in a regeneration zone and an area such as Longbridge, spending will be given top priority. This area has had a lack of investment in it and we see Longbridge as a catalyst for changing that.”
But if relocation does not go ahead, the college would need to spend £13?million to carry out infrastructure improvements on its existing site, he warned.
An LSC West Midlands spokesman said: “The LSC is building on Sir Andrew Foster’s recommendations. Part of the process will be to establish needs-based criteria to assess each application. We are also in the process of appointing a team of external property and education advisers to help assess individual college cases when the criteria is established.”
He said they were “very conscious” of the need to move quickly to a position of clarity in the interests of all concerned.