A combined authority has set aside almost £5 million to explore whether two new college campuses need to be built to tackle further education “cold spots”.
The lack of FE provision could otherwise force youngsters out of St Neots and East Cambridgeshire with the population set to swell, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority warned.
The authority is searching for a consultant to deliver a feasibility study, which it hopes will show if the plans are “financially viable [and whether] the educational case is robust”. It earmarked £4.8 million for the project over the next three years, subject to approval by the board.
“Initial conversations” have also taken place with multiple FE colleges over whether they would consider opening new campuses in the areas – but with mixed reception.
The authority said it started analysing its FE provision after adult education was devolved in 2019. It receives around £11.9 million of adult education budget funding to spend in its area each year.
It classed St Neots and East Cambridgeshire as FE “cold spots”, meaning the proportion of the local population in further education is lower than the authority average. Neither area has their own FE college, and there are “no adult education and skills providers” in East Cambridgeshire at all.
Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority warned there is not enough provision to meet the population increases. In St Neots, a council’s “masterplan” includes four new schools and more than 4,200 homes and will see the population surge – but without colleges to meet the demand for FE.
“An aspirational local further education offer” is also needed in East Cambridgeshire to keep more of its young people in the area, the combined authority said, adding this is a “strategic priority”. Currently, young people travel miles to Cambridge or Bury St Edmunds for FE.
An authority spokesperson said the planned feasibility study will establish the “evidence base and potential range of strategic options”.
“This could include the expansion of FE provision in the market towns, to bring provision closer to learners, but only if it is financially viable to do so and the educational case is robust.”
Authority documents suggest each campus would cost between £25 million and £40 million – though the spokesperson stressed those are “very outline estimates”.
“Initial conversations” have also taken place with multiple FE colleges over their support for the project, plus one secondary school and a group representing manufacturers.
The authority has discussed expanding FE in St Neots with: Cambridge Regional College, Bedford College Group, North Hertfordshire College and MAKE UK. It has also consulted with the College of West Anglia, Ely College and West Suffolk College over FE in East Cambridgeshire.
Ian Pryce, chief executive of Bedford College Group, said the college “agrees that these high growth areas are an FE cold spot”. He said students from St Neots currently travel to Bedford College or Cambridge Regional College for FE.
While he acknowledged the population of St Neots “would not [currently] support a major FE presence” he said this would “change over time”.
“We would obviously want to avoid creating anything that is not sustainable or viable, so we would like to work with Cambridge Regional College to agree a strategy for how best to serve the community and the extent to which new FE facilities could advance that aim.”
Not all local principals were as enthusiastic. David Pomfret, principal at the College of West Anglia, said “evidence of need has yet to be established” with only one meeting so far on the plans, back in November 2022.
“Alternative solutions such as improved transport access should be fully assessed by any feasibility study,” he said.
A spokesperson for Cambridge Regional College acknowledged that it is “part of the consultation group for both sites”. But they added that it is too “early in the consultation process” to comment further.
A spokesperson for the Eastern Education Group, to which West Suffolk College belongs, said it is “committed to growing our educational offer and supporting the [authority] in line with the findings of their study”.
The combined authority spokesperson said it will “continue to seek [colleges’] insights on the project” and will reconvene the advisory groups once it has appointed consultants.