‘Disappointment’ at 13th UTC closure

'Good' rated Watford college will shut at the end of the academic year due to low student demand

'Good' rated Watford college will shut at the end of the academic year due to low student demand

Leaders of a university technical college (UTC) in Hertfordshire have spoken of their “disappointment” after the government confirmed it will close due to low student demand.

The Watford UTC will see its current students in years 11 and 13 through to the end of the academic year before it closes. New starts for years 10 and 12 were suspended last year.

Its closure means an uncertain future for the college’s 22 staff members.

Watford UTC will be the 13th UTC to cease operation since their inception in 2010.

Year-end accounts at the college for 2022 indicated that its governing body had agreed “by mutual consent” with the Department for Education to close. A “solvent winding up” of the organisation is to be completed within 12 months of its accounts being filed. 

The college has not attracted as many students as projected since it opened in 2014, with lower funding as a consequence.

Financial figures showed a net revenue deficit of £103,000 in 2021/22, with a net book value of fixed assets valued at £7.7 million.

The Baker Dearing Trust, which issues licences and advocates for UTCs, said efforts to stabilise the college had included bolstering numbers by applying to lower its entry age and a proposal to join a multi-academy trust.

A spokesperson from the trust said those efforts offered “promising results for the long-term sustainability,” to both the school and education provision in Watford.

“We are disappointed in this outcome, especially considering the UTC’s ‘good’ rating from Ofsted and the high-quality destinations the UTC students have been able to achieve with staff,” the spokesperson added.

Ash Patil, chair of governors at the UTC, said: “We are disappointed with this outcome, as staff, governors and stakeholders have been working hard on a solution to safeguard the future of the UTC.”

Patil added that “every effort will be made to ensure students are supported to complete their studies successfully”.

The UTC’s website said it offered full-time and technically orientated courses for up to 600 students aged 14-to-19, but the college has failed to hit those numbers in recent years.

At the time of its Ofsted inspection in March 2017 it had 169 students, about half of whom were on 16-to-19 programmes.

The college currently has 54 students – 39 in year 11 and 15 in year 13. New enrolments stopped last year while the DfE considered the college’s future.

In May 2018, the Education and Skills Funding Agency handed the college a financial notice to improve because of budget concerns.

Officials tasked the UTC’s governing board with securing a balanced budget and growing student numbers at a realistic rate.

More than 50 UTCs have opened since they were launched in 2010 by former education secretary Lord Baker. Many of the colleges have, however, faced financial difficulties and struggled to attract students.

The Baker Dearing Trust shared figures last year that showed student recruitment was improving across most UTCs, but FE Week analysis found that while five are oversubscribed, more than half are less than two-thirds full. BDT has said that UTCs must be two-thirds full to be financially viable.

In November, trust chief executive Simon Connell said there were plans for three new UTCs.

Two of those were submitted in the most recent round of free school bids – one for a new UTC in Southampton being led by UTC Portsmouth, while the existing Doncaster UTC has applied for a health sciences and green technologies school.

Work on a third bid for Suffolk is ongoing with the aim of being lodged in a future application window.

Conservative MP for Watford, Dean Russell, who is also a governor at the college, paid tribute to Watford’s staff and governors and said that UTCs “have an important role to play in the country’s education”.

He added: “That being said, following exhaustive efforts to find a route to keep the UTC open with every option examined and explored, I accept the Department for Education has had to come to this decision.”

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  1. Dave Spart

    How many more millions is the government prepared to waste on Baker’s vanity project? One might have thought that a government in thrall to market forces would recognise that students and parents are voting with their feet.

  2. After a life-time working in the FE/Technical College sector I was doubting this vanity project the minute I saw the brand University Technical College. Just what did that mean?
    I followed my local UTC for 5 years, from initial presentations before commencement to closure of the UTC. The Principal only lasted a very short time, the enrolment numbers were approx 25% of those expected, and inevitable closure came quickly.
    Elsewhere FE colleges were struggling with funding to keep courses afloat and serve their community. That led to mergers and mega-mergers of colleges to produce almost meaningless institutions with little local identity and confusion about the role each were playing.
    The refurbished building for the UTC cost many millions and to the best of my knowledge is still not functioning several years later, despite more ‘bright ideas’.
    The ‘waste of money’ beggars belief.