Their idyllic rural settings, historic buildings and strong links with local communities have enabled land-based colleges to diversify their income streams in innovative ways to survive. Jessica Hill investigates what the future holds for England’s land-based college sector.
Land-based education sits at the forefront of the biggest crises facing our world, from food scarcity to environmental destruction and global warming.
And running a land-based college is no countryside picnic. Their principals have a myriad of responsibilities on top of ensuring that education is up to scratch and budgets balanced.
Their vast estates are costly to upkeep and, for some principals who live on-site, like Kingston Maurward’s Luke Rake, it is a 365-day-a-year job.
In his spare time Rake, who is also a director of Landex (the membership body for land-based colleges and universities) is a “rock god” and lead guitarist in Britain’s biggest Iron Maiden tribute band, Ironed Maiden.
But by day, he is a “mild-mannered principal” who enjoys watching the eight species of birds he gets on any one morning landing on his bird feeder.
On his daily walks around the 750-acre estate in Dorset, clad in wellies and accompanied by his black labrador, Rake keeps an eye out for otters, egrets, herons and deer as he greets students, staff and members of the public.
“The really special thing about land-based colleges is the culture is so palpable. I’m not just the principal of a college, I’m the chief executive of a county estate,” explains Rake.
The Oxford-educated former zoologist and mountain rescuer professes to be “not a suit and tie kind of guy, not one for sitting in the office”. And who can blame him, with such picturesque grounds to enjoy?
But these grounds are eye-wateringly expensive to maintain. While all colleges complain about not having enough revenue funding streams for capital upkeep, this is particularly true for land-based colleges.
Kingston Maurward, which spends 14 per cent of its turnover on maintaining its estate, has attempted to diversify its income streams by hosting a farm shop, a school and alternative provision. It also boasts a new university centre (in partnership with the Open University) and wedding and conference venues.
But even then, the college can no longer afford to remain independent.
It is now merging with Weymouth College, causing the number of remaining independent land-based colleges to shrink from 12 to 11. There were 50 in 1980.
Marcus Clinton, principal of Reaseheath College in Cheshire, says one of his biggest challenges is “keeping complex estates and specialist equipment and technologies maintained – funding to recognise it is not just the initial purchase”.
Plumpton College in Sussex, which started taking students in 1926, has focused on galvanising England’s fledgling wine industry: more than 95 per cent of the country’s wineries and vineyards employ Plumpton graduates. The college produces its own sparkling wine, Plumpton Estate English Brut NV.
A quarter of Plumpton’s funding now comes from commercial revenue, while half is from the government, 21 per cent from fee income from adults, higher education and employers, and 6 per cent from grants.
Principal Jeremy Kerswell believes it is growing commercially more rapidly than any other land-based college. Its turnover has grown by 56 per cent in the past eight years, from £16-£25 million.
But, apart from offering residence and venue space outside term time, “all that activity has to be for student experience first and revenue generation second”.
Rake takes me on a tour from Kingston Maurward’s main house, where the writer Thomas Hardy lived, down to the Elizabethan former home of Augusta, the milkmaid on whose life Hardy based his novel [ITALS] Tess of the d’Urbervilles. The journey’s visuals have hardly changed since Hardy described them in [ITALS] Under the Greenwood Tree.
Rake was “really into Hardy” as a youngster growing up on the edge of Dartmoor, which was “one of the attractions” for him of coming here in 2016 from Hartpury College in Gloucestershire.
Preparing for the future
Land-based colleges stand with one foot in the past in terms of maintaining proud farming traditions, and the other very much in the future.
When they were formed in every county in the wake of the 1947 Agricultural Act, amid a shortage of farming labour, students were taught to “lump a load of pesticides and fertilisers” on land to ramp up food production, says Rake.
That culture is changing, although farming is “still very much a family tradition”. We watch as one of Kingston Maurward’s agricultural students clambers eagerly into one of its high-tech tractors, which can drive itself.
The student is focused on the computer screen to the right of the steering wheel, which tells him about yields and moisture levels. They use GPS trackers and learn how to drone-map the land to within “a couple of inches” to ensure “really precise applications of fertiliser and pesticides”.
“That’s better for nature and finances,” says Rake. “And let’s not pretend the students don’t love the tech!”
Similarly, Myerscough College in Lancashire recently installed robotic milking units, reducing the labour required and “leading to reduced feed costs and greater efficiency of milk production”.
Richard, a level 2 agricultural student at Myerscough, said “the younger generation of farmers are not willing to put in the milking time anymore.”
Declining jobs in farming is nothing new. Rake thumbs through an old farming logbook from 1955, flipping open a page which details the roles of the 13 staff then working at Kingston Maurward’s farm. It states that Fred Atkins spent an hour hauling buckets of water for the pigs.
Nowadays three full-timers run the farm, with “far more animals” than there were then.
Many jobs in the sector that will become available in current students’ lifetimes have yet to be invented, according to environment, food and rural affairs committee chair Steven Bonnar MP, with future jobs emerging in programming, coding and data interpretation.
For Rake it is an “interesting question” whether all this new farming technology will create a sense of disconnection between farmers and the animals and land upon which they work.
But he is not shy of the future. Kingston Maurward is investing in aquaculture and hydroponics. He is also entering “discussions” with companies around cultivating marijuana.
“It’s not just a 750-acre learning estate, it’s a laboratory – let’s do stuff with it, let’s play. That brings in other companies.”
Technological advances are already creating industry skills gaps.
David Llewellyn, chair of Lantra, an awarding body for land-based industries, says the sector is “desperately short” of agricultural engineers who can maintain all the new specialist equipment.
The Landworkers’ Alliance believes more needs to be done to get environmentally aware young people to join the sector.
In its response to the environment, food and rural affairs committee’s inquiry into education and careers in land-based sectors, it says that although “many young people are motivated to pursue careers that help tackle the climate and ecological crises… farming and forestry are often seen as part of the problem, rather than particular ways of managing the land and forests producing food and timber being highlighted as a potential solution”.
Kerswell says one of the biggest problems that his college faces is that of “perception”. “People in schools and careers still think we represent sectors that are in decline, poorly paid and are only for people who aren’t academic.” The reality “could not be more different”, with employer demand being “very much” for those trained at “level three, four and above”.
‘Everything is a classroom resource’
Gesturing towards the grade two-listed gardens where horticultural students are planning displays for the next Chelsea Flower Show, Rake explains how at land-based colleges “everything you see is a classroom resource”.
Kingston Maurward just got DfE funding for a new building on site for its 11-16 school. It also hosts a homeschooling group and has just reintroduced 14-16 alternative provision, enabling schools to send pupils who find it challenging to concentrate in conventional classroom settings.
But, despite their youth focus, land-based colleges like Kingston Maurward are predominantly located in rural areas that are demographic timebombs.
Dorset is expected to soon become the first county with more retired than working-age people, with Kingston Maurward projecting a 10 per cent reduction in students in five years.
In the 1990s, many land-based colleges started offering residential provision, so they could cast their nets further afield. Of Plumpton’s 1,200 full-time students, 120 live on-site, while Hartpury, which has a strong focus on sports, can accommodate around 1,000 students.
Rake says Kingston Maurward tried offering residential, but only got about 20 students taking it up. “With the costs of managing it, plus the fun that you have with Ofsted care standards, it wasn’t worth our time.”
Balancing the books
Future demographics are not the only financial challenge for Rake. After losing £600,000 of income in 2020-21 due to Covid lockdowns, Kingston Maurward’s coffers were further dented last year when it exchanged old oil-fired boilers for an air source heat pump system, partly funded through the government’s decarbonisation scheme.
It has helped the college already to hit its target of becoming net zero by 2025, assuming you discount the dairy herd whose milk is sold to Marks & Spencer.
“Cows produce a lot of methane. But we can’t get rid of them.”
However, the move to electricity, just as Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, meant the college’s utility bill tripled overnight.
Furthermore, for almost three years Kingston Maurward has been embroiled in a “cordial” clawback dispute with the Education and Skills Funding Agency, now worth £1.1 million (10 per cent of turnover), because the auditor felt apprentices had not been given sufficient off-the-job training.
Rake describes it as an issue that “exercises myself and my governors”. He adds: “The students have passed, we’ve delivered the training now. It’s just punitive.”
The saga has prompted the college to scrap apprenticeships altogether.
It previously took on around 100 apprentices a year, worth £500,000 of income.
But, on top of the risk of further clawbacks, the higher delivery costs involved in visiting students on rural placements meant it was “losing a six-figure sum” from the provision. “When finances are tough, you make tough decisions.”
But not all land-based colleges are turning their backs on apprenticeships. Plumpton grew its apprenticeship numbers by 400 per cent between 2016 and 2023 by “stimulating the employment market”, with 450 current apprentices.
As well as seeing significant growth with SMEs regionally, it also now delivers several national training contracts to organisations including the RHS and Tesco.
“It’s a big upfront investment and the relationships with employers take time to build trust, but has paid off,” says Kerswell.
Rake says most of the young people who would have chosen apprenticeships are now studying with the college full-time instead.
Given farming’s high mortality rate, he believes they are “better off” getting skilled up in the safe college environment. But course defunding also looms large over the sector.
Uptake in the new T Level in agriculture, land management and production has been “extremely low”, according to the Landworkers’ Alliance, and City & Guilds says the T Level’s structure is “not completely reflective of current industry practice”.
At Plumpton, 93 per cent of students are employed when they leave, which Kerswell believes “demonstrates the value of the current qualifications to the diverse industries we represent”.
Clinton says that, where adults “infill into 16-18 classes, they can no longer do so if that provision has switched to T Level. So [it’s] important we develop alternative provision they can access.”
Land-based colleges also play a vital role as community hubs.
Kingston Maurward hosts a liaison group between the council, police and traveller community and a free meeting space for Men’s Sheds, a charity which organises community spaces for men to enjoy practical hobbies.
It is also doing its bit to keep rural heritage crafts like blacksmithing alive, although its metal workshop can only fit 10 students at a time, making it “expensive to deliver”.
While recruiting for such specialist teaching roles can be a challenge, “culture here is everything. It’s a family”, so “people stay in those jobs for a long time”, says Rake.
“We’ve got an educational mission, a societal mission and a cultural mission that we do here.”
Hardy’s ashes were taken to Westminster Abbey when he died, but his heart is buried in Kingston Maurward’s churchyard.
As Rake makes his way back to his office in the college’s 18th-century stately home, from where he can look out over its lake and gardens, I cannot help but think that the principal’s own heart belongs there too.