Members of parliament fighting to save a land-based college have escalated the issue to prime minister Boris Johnson, after the FE Commissioner rejected multiple rescue bids.
Six Conservative MPs – including former Scottish secretary David Mundell – and former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron have called for the prime minister to support their efforts to save Newton Rigg College in Penrith, Cumbria.
The college has been edging towards closure after FE Commissioner Richard Atkins was asked to review its provision by Newton Rigg’s parent college, Askham Bryan, which has run the site since 2011.
The review concluded in May 2020 the site was no longer financially viable, and it was announced Newton Rigg would shut this coming July, with the potential loss of 117 jobs.
This triggered action by the MPs, who have now written to Johnson: “We must secure a viable future for this educational institution,” they said in a letter, seen by FE Week.
“We would kindly ask you support us in ensuring Askham Bryan facilitate a smooth transition to a new provider and are not allowed to close the doors of Newton Rigg and leave Cumbria without an agricultural college.”
According to the letter, Newton Rigg has operated from its current site for 124 years and runs a dairy farm and a hill farm.
Students educated at Newton Rigg, the letter reads, “will be the farmers and land managers of the future”.
“This pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the importance of food security and a college such as this will be pivotal in supporting that moving forward.”
Following the commissioner’s review, the government announced in June there would be a strategic review of proposals to take over the site, again led by the FE Commissioner.
However, Atkins found neither of the bids put forward – by an organisation called the Hadrian Group and a company formed by the college’s supporters, Newton Rigg Ltd – were compliant with the criteria for the review. Askham Bryan was told to proceed with closing the site.
Newton Rigg Ltd said at the time the decision made them “deeply disappointed and frustrated the review team have rejected our proposals for the future of the college”.
Speaking after the letter to the prime minister was sent, co-author and MP for Penrith and the Border Neil Hudson said he too was “deeply saddened” by the outcome of the strategic review.
Yet the letter reveals bidders have been given a short window has been given to bidders to make their bids compliant before resubmitting them.
Hudson told FE Week this window will only last for a “matter of weeks,” and the two bidders are looking at possibly collaborating.
Newton Rigg is certainly not short of support to continue its education provision: Kendal College has said it will give advice and guidance to the parties looking to keep Newton Rigg open.
But it will not play any more part in a formal rescue package, as it has had to focus on its core provision due to local circumstances, including the impact of Covid-19.
The letter to the prime minister has been signed by Hudson, Mundell, MP for Barrow and Furness Simon Fell, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale Tim Farron, MP for Carlisle John Stevenson, MP for Workington Mark Jenkinson, and MP for Bishop Auckland Dehenna Davison.
They are part of a string of MPs who have criticised, and in some cases organised against, the closure of FE colleges in their constituencies.
After Cornwall College Group announced plans to close its Saltash campus, its local Conservative MP Sheryll Murray wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson in January last year, calling for an investigation “to see if anything can be done to keep this facility available for further education provision”.
The Conservative MP for Rother Valley Alexander Stafford met with FE Commissioner Richard Atkins in February 2020 to discuss the “incredibly disappointing” decision by RNN Group to close its Dinnington campus. The college group later confirmed it would push ahead with the plans.
“Shocked” was how Conservative MP for West Worcestershire, Harriet Baldwin, described her reaction in November to the news Warwickshire College Group will shut Malvern Hills College by August of this year.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Colleges are independent to government. Any decision on Newton Rigg is for the college governing body to make.
“The Further Education Commissioner and Education and Skills Funding Agency continue to work closely with the local authorities, and other stakeholders to try and find a solution for retaining some education provision at Newton Rigg.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said they have received the letter and will be responding in due course.
Pictured: Neil Hudson MP at Newton Rigg College