A number of University Technical Colleges (UTCs) were running at around 10 per cent capacity last academic year — while the overall enrolment figure plummeted to just 30 per cent, FE Week can reveal.

Figures, supplied to FE Week under the Freedom of Information Act, indicate there was a total capacity of around 9,500 places in UTCs, but fewer than 3,000 were filled [see below].

All of the 17 UTCs operating in 2013/14 were undersubscribed, with the highest running at 81 per cent capacity before the next highest was half empty.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said that with most UTCs having only opened last year, they were “not expected to reach their capacity for a number of years”. But despite this, and despite the low enrolment numbers, he insisted the “recruitment picture is improving dramatically”.

Nevertheless, the poor figures will also come as a huge blow to the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which oversees UTCs, having seen overall enrolment in 2012/13 at 55 per cent. And Hackney UTC has already revealed it will not be reopening next September having attracted just 29 of its target of 75 pupils for 2014/15.

A spokesperson for the Baker Dearing Trust said she was “confident that as the UTCs themselves become more established… recruitment will increase.”

The UTC project was launched in 2011 — two years before colleges were able to recruit full-time learners from the age of 14 — and has enjoyed cross-party support. Chancellor George Osborne described them as “a key part of the government’s long-term economic plan,” while Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt called for “considerable growth” in the number of UTCs.

However, their Ofsted grades have not justified such positive backing. Of the five inspections to date, one resulted in an inadequate rating, two were deemed to require improvement, while the fourth and fifth were graded as good.

And with a further 13 UTCs having opened this month, and a planned total of 57 by 2016, the Association of Colleges (AoC) called for a rethink on UTCs. Gill Clipson, AoC deputy chief executive, said: “The government should assess how well the current UTCs are working before announcing the creation of even more.” She added: “Some local councils have been less than enthusiastic about advertising UTCs to their local community.”

Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, said: “These figures would suggest most UTCs are significantly under-recruiting against targets, which considering the publicity and resources put into them is most surprising. I would be interested to know the reasons, particularly as Hackney closed due to such low numbers.”

University and College Union head of FE Andrew Harden said: “Many UTCs may offer similar courses and curriculum to existing FE colleges. At a time when our colleges are facing huge budget cuts it is essential that vital funding is not diverted at the expense of institutions already providing key vocational training. Considering the considerable expense and fanfare that has surrounded UTCs it must be disappointing for all involved that take-up has not been better.”

The DfE spokesperson said: “UTCs, their university partners and businesses should work together to ensure they are offering an attractive and distinct alternative to other schools.”

The Baker Dearing Educational Trust spokesperson said: “The technical education pathway offered by UTCs is wholly new to the English school system and we expected it would take time for them to reach their maximum capacity.

“We are confident that as the UTCs themselves become more established, as the JCB Academy has done since it opened in 2010 [as an academy, before becoming a UTC in January last year], recruitment will increase. The majority of UTCs opened in 2013 and it is a challenge to recruit students to a new school at the non-standard age of 14, even though this is the right age.”


Capacity for review

With 2012/13’s UTC enrolment figures showing they were running, in total, at 55 per cent capacity, you would have expected a hint of caution in the corridors of power.

And armed with last year’s even lower figure of 30 per cent, you might even expect serious questions to be raised by government ministers and officials.

But not so, it would seem — to the extent that a DfE spokesperson said UTC recruitment was “improving dramatically”.

It’s hard to see this as a comment made in light of the facts, but regardless, UTCs continue to count on the support of Labour and the  Conservatives.

But then there’s also the quality argument. And on this UTCs don’t stand up particularly well either — certainly not when, as previously stated in this column, compared to the offer from general FE colleges, where inspections of 14 to 16 provision have yielded complimentary reports at Hull College and Middlesbrough College, among others.

And although it seemed former Education Secretary Michael Gove appreciated this when he called on Bedford College to step in and rescue the grade four-rated Central Bedfordshire UTC, we appear no closer to a critical analysis of the UTC  project.

But the AoC has called for such an assessment. So does FE Week.

Chris Henwood, editor