Durham dodges deficit

October 3, 1997

Further education: colleges are fighting funding cuts by expanding links with local business and rural communities

East Durham Community College has succeeded in its own mission impossible. With average levels of funding stripped to the bone (from Pounds 15 per unit in 1994 to just Pounds 8.78) it has taken on 44 per cent more full-time students while part-timers have mushroomed by 330 per cent.

"Our secret is all about breaking down barriers," says principal Ian Prescott. "Before we were a snobby college - we didn't really want punters through the door."

Now he is available to anyone.

Mr Prescott is in with the right people. He knows Labour leader Tony Blair. But even though his college is in the prime minister's constituency, an area of high unemployment, it is still one of the worst funded. This year he must make up a shortfall of up to Pounds 300,000. He will do it By expanding the share of full-cost work with commercial partners and pushing for more EU grants.

When Mr Prescott took over the college and its debts he wanted to transform it into a community college. He now has 54 centres in village halls around East Durham. Of a total college income of Pounds 8.3 million, East Durham gets just Pounds 161,000 from students. Anyone aged 19 or under is exempt, as are most unemployed students and those on income support. Fees range from Pounds 48 for a part-time GCSE course to more than Pounds 200 for a business-related programme. The proportion paid by students does not cover the full cost.

A neighbouring college gets a further Pounds 2 million more for teaching the same number of students. Mr Prescott runs his college on unashamedly commercial lines. His staff work the maximum hours in their contracts and see the college's monthly accounts. He gives them responsibility for generating income. Last year the college made a Pounds 700,000 surplus. It plans to do the same again.

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