Flagship rail college hopes new name and broader offering will put it back on track

The National College for High Speed Rail is ploughing ahead with a new name and broader course offer, following a multi-million pound government bailout.

After consulting earlier this year, the government’s flagship college is changing its name to the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure and intends to offer a wider range of courses at its Birmingham and Doncaster campuses.

Chief executive of the college Clair Mowbray said: “As an employer-led college, it’s key we ensure the skills we equip our learners with meet the demands and the skills shortages of the broader advanced transport and infrastructure sector.”

She quoted figures from the Strategic Transport Apprenticeship Taskforce which estimate 50,000 more people are needed to work in the rail sector; 41,000 to fill roles on the road network; and 180,000 to deliver the Heathrow Expansion project.

“There is huge demand across the sectors and the name change reflects our dedication to delivering and developing our curriculum to meet industry demands,” Mowbray continued.

This name change coincides with delays and costing problems with the HS2 project, which is meant to deliver a high-speed rail link from London to the north and is closely aligned with the college.

Mowbray developed the college while working at the company responsible for the project, HS2 Ltd, which has lent her college £2,906,000 in 2018 and £2,804,000 in 2017.

But completion of the first phase of HS2, between London and Birmingham, will probably be pushed back until 2040, transport secretary Grant Shapps told parliament last month, and the budget for the project could increase by around £20 billion.

NCHSR’s rebrand comes after FE Week reported in May the National College for High Speed Rail needed a £4.55 million bailout from the Department for Education to sign off its 2017-18 accounts, that the provider would not need to pay back.

However, what will need to be paid back – by 2030 – is a working capital loan of £8.3 million in 2017-18 that was necessary “to help with startup costs that have been incurred in establishing the college,” according to a spokesperson.

This is not the only national college to run into difficulty since the scheme was launched with £80 million of taxpayers’ money in 2014.

National College Creative Industries is consulting on dissolving and instead starting a new company, NCCI Ltd, which would franchise classroom provision and its building out to South Essex College and apprenticeship provision to Access Creative College. NCCI’s move came after it made it through 2017-18 as a “going concern” thanks to a £600,000 bailout from the Department for Education.

Despite a target to recruit 1,000 learners a year, it only recruited 167 between May 2018 and May 2019.

Following the bailout, then-skills minister Anne Milton announced NCCI would be going through a structure and prospects appraisal to identify partners.

The DfE launched an evaluation of the national college policy in November, to avoid making mistakes in the rollout of the Institutes of Technology, of which eight more were announced this week by education secretary Gavin Williamson (see page 14).