Funding squeeze fuels merger trend

August 9, 1996

Careful husbandry has been vital for all colleges in the present stormy financial climate. But the agricultural sector seems to have reaped its own crop of problems.

Warwickshire College for Agriculture, Horticulture and Equine Studies, the largest college of its kind in the country, responded to fears of future cash shortages by merging last week with Mid-Warwickshire College.

Managers say they have received inquiries from a number of other colleges thinking of making the same move.

Cranfield University in Bedford has just closed its Shuttleworth site, specialising in land-based studies, and transferred its students and staff to Silsoe, ten miles away.

Harper Adams Agricultural College in Newport, Shropshire recently changed its principal amid suggestions that it needed stronger management to cope with the present funding squeeze.

Other pressures have not helped. Even the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, the only private agricultural college in the land, has had to tighten its belt. Five academic and four management jobs went in a recent restructuring. It says a decline in the number of farming families, particularly in those prepared to pay the Pounds 4,000-per-year fees, has made life more difficult.

Thousands of farming families have gone out of business in the past 20 years. The sector has also changed dramatically - from a subsidised system to one more open to market forces, from intensive farming to set-aside.

Increasing competition for students means colleges are under pressure to provide the latest agricultural equipment. Fewer job opportunities mean many are also feeling forced to diversify into other study areas and from further education to degree courses.

Setting up new libraries and expertise to do this adds to their financial load, especially as many colleges are small and must count pennies rather than pounds.

Agricultural colleges are funded by the Further Education Funding Council and like the rest of the sector have had to make annual savings over the past three years. Unlike other colleges, they receive an added weighting, which varies depending on the courses offered.

But they claim this is not enough to cover the increased management costs of incorporation plus expensive facilities such as mini-farms and tractors.

Helena Stockford, principal of the newly merged Warwickshire College Royal Leamington Spa and Moreton Morrell, said: "Long-term financial projections showed things were going to get worse for everyone and it seemed better to jump while the college was relatively healthy rather than wait."

Peter Savidge, principal of Holme Lacey College, Hereford, said: "We are having to reduce staffing levels leading to increased class sizes and we are having to encourage more student-centred learning. All this is making us look very closely at merger."

But Arthur Jones, principal at Cirencester, said merger with other general institutions was not always the solution.

"The principal of the former college now becomes just a head of faculty and has to fight for money in faculty meetings," he said. "This is not easy when other subjects are making demands."

While there is healthy demand for courses their number has mushroomed. So pressure on colleges to recruit remains intense.

Peter Thorn, principal of the Berkshire College of Agriculture, said: "We are a sound business and have been successful in reaching our targets but I can't pretend that the outlook is at all promising."

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