College set to close with the loss of 117 jobs

A land-based college is set to close next year with the potential loss of 117 jobs following an FE Commissioner review which found the site was no longer financially viable.

Askham Bryan College informed staff at Newton Rigg College in Penrith of the decision this afternoon.

The move to shut in July 2021 has been called a “hammer blow” by union officials, who have pledged to campaign against the decision.

Neil Hudson, the MP for Penrith and The Border, added that this is “hugely disappointing news” and vowed to “do my upmost to secure a viable future for Newton Rigg”.

The proposal is subject to the outcome of a 45-day consultation process with affected staff and trade unions.

The closure would leave the county without any specialist agricultural education.

Askham Bryan College, based 100 miles away in York, took over the running of Newton Rigg from the University of Cumbria in 2011.

The college said the FE Commissioner’s review, which started in March and concluded this month, found that Newton Rigg “lacks a sustainable business model due to declining student numbers and demographics”.

It was also said to have found that the estate would require around £20 million worth of capital investment in order to “keep pace” with land-based sector skills needs.

However, the college added the timing of the proposed closure “gives a window of opportunity for an alternative group or organisation to provide a potential solution” with “high level” of support expressed for Newton Rigg from various Cumbrian organisations and groups – suggesting that they plan to sell the site.

Askham Bryan also stated it would look at the viability of transferring uplands farm at Low Beckside to an “appropriate” body or group on the basis they would continue to preserve it for educational use.

Tim Whitaker, principal of Askham Bryan College, said: “We understand the strength of feeling about Newton Rigg and the fact this will be upsetting news to our staff, students and the local community.

“This has been a very difficult decision. We regret putting staff at risk of redundancy.

“Given the current economic climate, and the fact that no capital or revenue funding is available, we have no other option but to propose closing the facility in July 2021.”

The University and College Union (UCU) has vowed to fight the closure of the Penrith-based college at the end of the next academic year, but did not provide further details of its plans.

UCU regional official Iain Owens said: “This is a hammer blow for the people of Penrith and Cumbria who rely on Newton Rigg to provide education for their young people.

“The closure would leave Cumbria – one of the most agriculturally-dependant counties in the country – without any specialist agricultural education.”

Around 888 learners are currently based at the college including 221 apprentices as well as 667 FE students – the majority of which are enrolled on one-year programmes.

Courses provided include agriculture, animal and equine management, uniformed public services, hairdressing and beauty therapy and health and social care.

Learning and apprenticeships planned for the next academic year will continue as intended. 

Student recruitment and enrolment will also continue and in the event of campus closure, the college said it work in partnership with other FE colleges to map progression routes beyond 2021 and seek to identify an alternative location for ‘off the job’ training provision in Cumbria.

At the start of the month, a cross-party group of local MPs led by Hudson came together in a failed attempt to save the provider.

Among others he was joined by former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and former education select committee member Trudy Harrison.

Hudson said the college, which is over a century old, had a “tremendous” heritage and is “unique” in the county for specialising in land-based sectors.

Newton Rigg is one of a number of colleges that have announced plans to close campuses and been met with MP opposition.

Other cases have include the RNN Group, Cornwall College Group, BMet and Warrington & Vale Royal College.