One of the biggest FE providers in the country is going through a momentous upheaval. Leeds City College Group is juggling a major rebrand while taking on another struggling college, as well as the imminent opening of a £60 million state-of-art campus. Jessica Fino headed to Leeds to find out how the group is handling the change
Two months ago it was announced that Harrogate College was being offloaded by the cash-strapped Hull College Group as part of its recovery plan, following years of financial turmoil.
But eyebrows were initially raised when it was revealed that Harrogate would be joining the Luminate Education Group – a name that isn’t on the UK Register of Learning Providers, the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s allocations data, or Ofsted’s inspection database.
It turns out that Luminate is the new name for one of FEs most established providers: Leeds City College Group.
Luminate was the only name on the shortlist that wasn’t practical
Located in the educational quarter of Leeds, the college’s Printworks Campus is a modern and bright building. As I arrive, I enter a big café with sleek décor and freshly prepared cakes and sandwiches. It definitely does not look like your ordinary cafeteria.
I am greeted by a young barista, who is one of the apprentices working at the café.
Colin Booth is seated at the back of the café waiting for me with a grin on his face. Once we are served with drinks prepared by the apprentice, Booth starts explaining the reasoning behind the group’s new name, saying it was needed to represent a “change of direction”.
“When we were called Leeds City College Group everybody assumed that LCC ran the other organisations, but we are all part of the same family.”
The group comprises LCC, Keighley College, Leeds College of Music and the White Rose Academies Trust. From August this year, Harrogate College will also join.
The new name represents a change in how the group manages itself, rather than being a new group, Booth tells me.
He says coming up with a shortlist of names took a “long time of going out and talking to a lot of people externally, as well as to our students and staff”.
As well as Luminate, ‘Changing Futures Group’ and ‘Forward North’ were two other possible names included in the shortlist.
When it was time to vote, Booth did not know what the board was going to go with, but tells me the results were “quite a surprise”.
I am not convinced the name was his first choice, as he points out that it was “the only name on the shortlist that wasn’t practical”, and he explains that it’s more a stakeholder-focused name, rather than student-focused.
We are absolutely fine if anybody wants to join us
The new branding comes at a time of growth. Once Harrogate joins the group, it will have a total of 30,000 students and over 3,000 staff. The college’s budget for next year will be £94 million while the academy trust’s budget will be £20 million.
It is creating a new group board, plus individual boards for each institution. The main central services and the executive team, located in Park Lane, in an LCC building, will likely move to a brand new head office within the next five years – although this hasn’t been finalised yet.
With all these future plans in sight, is Booth planning on expanding the number of colleges even further?
“We are absolutely fine if anybody wants to join us but we don’t have an aggressive strategy to try and recruit other colleges,” he says.
“Our growth is mainly the fact that individual members of the group are growing. We are focused on providing fantastic-quality education and I believe that the consequence is that colleges tend to grow.”
The addition of Harrogate College will by itself be a challenge, since it “desperately needs to grow very quickly when we take that over”. Hull College Group, which Harrogate is still part of, received the biggest amount in restructuring grants from the ESFA last year to support its “fresh start” arrangement and to help its “significant financial and operational turnaround”.
Booth says: “Actually, a number of people keep asking me, ‘If it’s struggling that much financially to attract students, why do you want to run it?’ As a town of 100,000 people, Harrogate should have an FE college, and it was heading to a position where it could soon not have one any more.
“They had been losing student numbers in the last three years, contracting in size and not making ends meet financially. The biggest challenge will be to reverse that contraction and help them grow again.
We don’t have an aggressive strategy to recruit other colleges
“Our belief was that we can probably make it work. Time will tell if we can, but we believe we can make it work.”
The chief executive adds that Luminate’s main problem now is lack of space, a result of the student numbers growing by 11 per cent last year and likely to grow by a similar number next year.
A new £60 million campus at Quarry Hill has been primarily built to improve the group’s resources, but since it started to be designed and built three years ago, the group has outgrown its additional space. “So on day one, the building will be at the fullest capacity and beyond.”
The college’s schools of Creative Arts and Social Science will be relocated to the new campus, as well as facilities and space for Leeds College of Music, which is based nearby.
The project received £33.4 million funding from the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, delivered by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority.
After wrapping up the interview and finishing off our coffees, I toured Quarry Hill. With one month to completion, more than 100 people were working at the site. Some rooms, including an impressive 200-seat theatre, were very close to completion.
But despite its state-of-art classrooms, recording studios, dance rooms and theatres, the new campus is not just another new modern building.
The group was also keen to include some details to give character to the building, including an artwork on its façade depicting Jack Longbottom and Mary Brady, two residents of the Quarry Hill Flats in the 1930s.
Demolished in 1978, these were the largest and most modern of their kind in Europe, housing around 3,000 people – the same number of students who will be on campus once it opens in a few weeks’ time.