Insight: East Anglian land colleges merger ‘will be a fertile marriage of equals’
SARAH CHAMBERS speaks to the new principal of Easton and Otley College about the challenges ahead
FINDING new recruits for the food and farming sector isn’t easy.
And while the latest census reveals the overall UK population is on the rise, the proportion of younger people continues to decline.
David Lawrence, principal of the newly-formed Easton and Otley college, knows that within the age group now approaching adulthood, there is going to be tough competition to find the next generation of tractor drivers, livestock managers, agricultural machinery technicians, crop experts and all the other workers which are needed to keep Suffolk and Norfolk’s farming industry alive.
Partly as a result of these concerns, the former principal of Easton College, near Norwich, joined forces with his opposite number, Philip Winfield, at Otley College, near Ipswich, to lead a ground-breaking land colleges merger aimed at encouraging more of the counties’ youngsters into the sector, and opening up greater access to higher education to those would-be farming professionals who want to stay within the counties - or would opt to come here.
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Easton and Otley College, with David as its principal, was officially opened on August 1 following a complicated two-year process, including a public consultation which found 79% of respondents were in favour.
The formation of the new land college coincides with demographic changes and tough economic times within society at large.
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An increasingly ageing farming workforce means that the need for new blood has never been more pressing.
Beyond agriculture, a world recession has taken grip and its impact is being felt in falling public spending, the effects of which were already being felt by the two colleges prior to the merger.
Out of this ‘marriage of equals’ comes a much larger specialist land-based organisation for the East of England, serving a land area of more than 10,000 square miles in England’s primary agricultural region.
“It’s taken us a long while to get to where we are. We all know it’s the right thing to do and we just want to get on with it,” says David.
The skills shortage is a problem which has been exercising the minds of those within the industry for some while now. It is estimated that the land-based and environmental sector is going to require around 242,000 workers over this next decade to replace those leaving it, and the skills levels of those entering it will need to be higher than ever.
But from 2013 through to 2018, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex are set to see their cohort of 15-year-olds dwindle in successive years from where it has been. According to 2011 statistics, a third of the regional land-based workforce is under 34 years of age, and the majority of workers are in the 45 to 54-year-old bracket. A quarter are over 55.
David knows the implications within the eastern region of an ageing population with fewer 15-19-year-olds for most of the next five to 10 years. Combined with comparatively high levels of employment, and fierce competition for full-time education choices at age 16, it means the new college has its work cut out.
“It’s a pretty fundamental reason for doing this. Otley and Easton were set up in response to providing the agricultural industry with its workforce for the future and we have both had to change because the rural economy has changed. The fundamental reason for the colleges to exist is to address the needs of the land based industry,” he says.
“The nub of it is we have struggled to meet the demands in terms of recruitment for our core industries and that’s getting harder and harder to deal with on a county-by-county basis. We have seen a number of colleges disappear. We have gone from 34 down to 14 or 15 and clearly every time that happens we weaken our ability to meet the needs of the agricultural sector.”
Suffolk and Norfolk export the majority of their land-based learners in agriculture. Some return, but it does put the counties at a disadvantage, says David. Both Otley and Easton were determined to remain land-based. Other similar colleges have chosen to merge with generalist colleges, thus diluting their agricultural and horticultural base.
Pooling resources and creating this new entity places the college among the big-hitters in the land-based education sector. It’s a ‘re-balancing’ which is particularly fitting, given the importance of the food and farming sector within the two counties, which, combined, account for about 10.5% of the total UK agricultural output.
“Neither of us had to do this. We are doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do,” says Philip.
The move enables them, he explains, to capitalise on the different strengths of their staff, and helps protect them from the “continuing, inexorable drive” towards less Government funding.
“We have been able to protect students from the impact of that,” he says.
“It’s really interesting. We go back in time and that’s where these colleges were set up all that time ago. We are reinventing ourselves for the next generation really and making sure we have got the critical mass for the job. Staff and managers have to wear all sorts of different hats. This enables them to become more specialist.”
Over the past two years, the two sites, aided by video conferencing and the internet, have built up a solid relationship based on trust. Both are aware of the benefits the merger brings, and both believe it has been “massively positive”, says Philip.
“There’s lots of staff working together. People will see there’s an hour and a half between us but you just have to manage that appropriately so people aren’t going to Easton for half a day.
“We are using video conferencing very effectively. Yes, it’s a bit of a nuisance, but the gain far exceeds the costs of having to deal with that,” says David.
It’s not a merger based on cutbacks, they stress - although they have been able to generate savings from combining some back-office functions such as HR and accounts - and they have no plans to cut courses at one site on the grounds they do it at the other.
“It’s more the development of the curriculum where we are able to develop the stuff once rather than twice. We have got the management of that curriculum which we are sharing. One of our challenges is we are invariably dealing with quite small numbers,” explains David.
But they will be able to play to their strengths - Easton, for example, has a dairy unit which Otley-based students will be able to benefit from. Otley has a strong construction training department, Easton is big on sports.
“Meeting industry needs and getting students jobs - that was our target,” says David.
“The reason the marriage is important is it gives us some efficiencies in the way we manage it and it also means with the capital investment we have got we can do a better job of that.
“We have invested heavily in IT. It’s common IT. We have got a group of staff who are managing that across the two sites.”
All the problems that currently beset further and higher education were previously ones they had to tackle separately. Now that they are combined, the future looks brighter, they say.
“In the main, we are not starting from zero. We are starting at a good gallop really,” says Philip.
David adds: “We have already seen reductions in Government funding and that’s not going to stop, so you have got to be geared up in a different way.”
Already, the college is about two or three years ahead of where experts expected it to be on merger.
The move has found enormous support from the farming community in particular, including the counties’ agricultural associations.
“People see this as part of the solution to the problem. We have both been hit in terms of recruitment to our industry - that’s the challenge. It’s a really big job and it will take us a very long time to fix. If we had carried on in the competitive world we were in we could not have fixed that,” says David.
Although it’s impossible to give guarantees on staff numbers because of the link to student volumes and funding, there are no plans to cut staff numbers, although the colleges have looked at every post where there is an opportunity from natural wastage and working in partnership.
“We have considered every vacancy we have had so we have already made significant staff savings over the last two years,” says David. “If the students don’t turn up, you’ve got a problem. With the merger per se we don’t see an issue with that.”
We have got really positive news about jobs and to be honest we ought to have a queue for places.”
But the perception persists that farm work is low-skilled and low-paid and this is an image they are working hard to dispel.
“There’s a thing about young people not understanding our industry. A lot of feeling it it’s low level work but it’s not,” says Philip. “We need all the industry big players to come together to make sure that happens.”
David adds that there are forecasts about the growth needs within agriculture.
“We have not had a problem in placing students. The jobs are definitely there. Our challenge now is recruiting lecturing staff.
David chairs the food, farming and rural enterprise board at the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
“Sixteen per cent of all jobs across Norfolk and Suffolk are in that broader food and farming sector so this is serious,” says David. “Overall, world food demand is going up and certainly in my own view is our industry becomes very important. To us, it already is. I think the next 40 years gives fantastic opportunities to youngsters in the industry because we will need that food. The levels of technology they are using - we are in a different world from when I started work.
“It’s got a lot going for it and for Suffolk and Norfolk, it’s an absolutely fundamental industry.”
Their plan is to increase apprenticeships and higher education places and encourage youngsters post-16 to consider a farming career.
“These two colleges have the same mission and the same objectives but they are different and that’s a tremendous strength,” says David.
Clearly, they are living in a competitive world, but it is still important to remember why they are here, he says.
“We are public servants and our job is to work collaboratively and to deliver the best outcomes. That’s more difficult to do when the overall pot of learners is decreasing,” he adds.
“We have set aside our institutional hats to do the right strategic thing for our two counties and I do think we are not very good at doing that nationally. The whole challenge of this is to work collaboratively and to improve the experience for our learners. That takes quite a lot of courage to do and I pay tribute to our two governing boards for doing it.”