AoC hikes large college member fees to £57.7k

Most affected colleges supportive of 20% increase as some mull over value for money

Most affected colleges supportive of 20% increase as some mull over value for money

Multiple large colleges are reconsidering their Association of Colleges membership after the organisation suddenly upped their fees by more than 20 per cent to £57,700.

At a recent meeting, the AoC board voted to retain the body’s subscription rate at 0.1 per cent of a college’s turnover but decided to increase the membership fee cap, set at £47,700 since 2019, by £10,000.

It means any college earning more than £47.7 million will see their annual fee rise in 2024/25, up to a maximum fee of £57,700.

About 30 of AoC’s 178 general FE college members are set to be impacted by the move, which could increase the membership body’s income by about £200,000, or 3 per cent, depending on member retention.

The hike comes at a difficult financial time for colleges that have dealt with more than a decade of government underfunding and high inflation, which has prevented many from offering staff suitable pay awards to cope with the cost-of-living crisis.

AoC chief executive David Hughes said: “With more mergers since then [2019] and high inflation, [AoC’s] fee income has been flat despite rising modest overall college sector turnover. We know this is not an easy time to be asking for more when college finances are so pressured, but after five years with no increase we felt it was necessary.”

Membership numbers for AoC have shrunk slightly from 221 in 2019/20 to 202 in 2023/24, mostly caused by mergers. The company represents 98 per cent of all general FE colleges and has 24 sixth-form college (SFC) members – 55 per cent of all SFCs. 

Hughes said the fee cap has made it “harder to maintain services to members and work on influencing and campaigning” in recent years.

‘It’s important that we demand value for money’

Most affected leaders of large colleges who spoke to FE Week said they understood that to maintain a high level of service the fees must be reviewed. They spoke of the importance of the sector speaking with one voice through the membership body and several praised the quality of service they get in return including through strategy groups.

Nottingham College principal Janet Smith also lauded the AoC for “excellent support” when her college was under threat from industrial action. 

However, multiple colleges have taken issue with the size of the cap increase and questioned whether they are getting value for money.

John Evans, chief executive of Cornwall College Group, said: “I’m struggling with it [the rise]. I fully recognise the role that AoC do and the voice that they give the sector. But at a time when we are struggling to give pay awards, I’m having to weigh up whether it’s the right thing to use that money for.

“It’s quite difficult when you’re denying people a cost-of-living rise when you’re paying that to the AoC. They [staff] will question what they get back for it. I think the sector needs a voice, but it’s how effective the voice is, I guess.”

A source close to another large college, which did not wish to be named, said leaders were “unhappy” with the hike and are now “looking at our future membership”. “There is frustration among the leadership. We may end up staying in, but our team are split about what value we get.”

Some colleges raised the point that £57,700 could pay for two full-time staff members, while others questioned the effectiveness of drives such as the Love Our Colleges week. A couple also took issue with the cap rise being communicated without consultation.

One college boss, who also did not want to be named, said: “There are a few of us thinking about the effectiveness of AoC and for the bigger colleges, this increase is going to make that debate more acute.”

A spokesperson for NCG, the country’s largest college group, said: “We are very keen to have a strong representative voice for the sector and AoC is the strongest voice we have at this time. As part of the public sector, it’s important to us that we demand value for money from any membership organisation. We will continue to support AoC while working closely with them to ensure that they are serving the sector and NCG well.”

Elsewhere in FE, the Sixth Form Colleges Association charges members a flat fee of £10,100, while the Association of Employment and Learning Providers charge between £700 and £12,150 a year, depending on how many learners the provider has.

In the higher education sector, where most universities record more than £100 million turnovers, Universities UK charges fees of between £30,000 and £70,000, depending on size.

‘Increasing the cap aims to maintain impact we have’

The AoC’s latest accounts, for the year ended March 2023, stated that the association will “remain financially strong going forward”.

Hughes, whose salary has remained at £185,000 for the past two years, said his organisation’s latest satisfaction survey found almost 90 per cent of its members were either “satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the AoC’s service. 

AoC, which employs 145 staff, recently downsized its office in London to save costs.

Hughes told FE Week: “There’s a real desire among members to ensure that our voice is heard in the next 12 to 24 months, before and after the general election. We’re increasing our policy work, which we think is biting and is having a big influence. Increasing the cap aims to maintain what we do and the impact we have.”

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