More than 100 staff have been made redundant following a merger of West and South Cheshire Colleges to create a new post-16 further education institution over 11,000 students.
The whole FE sector is struggling financially with government-backed mergers seen as a way of saving colleges by achieving economies of scale.
Job losses comprise 68 support roles, 23 academic posts and 13 management positions – with 63 compulsory and 41 voluntary redundancies.
Jasbir Dhesi, the new principal and chief executive of West and South Cheshire Colleges, who is known by everyone as ‘Dhesi’, explained the reasons behind the cuts.
He said: “The key thing is the 16-18 year-old population has been falling. The demographics have been falling nationally and it’s no different in our region and it doesn’t pick up until 2019-20. All institutions, colleges and schools, are paid on the head count.
“The other thing is more and more people are choosing the apprenticeship route so this is a change in the way colleges are providing learning for that age group as well. Also, critically though, out of all of the sectors in education, post-16 is the one that’s been hit the hardest financially.”
“I would say we are operating on around 30% less income as a sector than we did in 2010, which is when austerity kicked in.”
Dhesi insists the impact of redundancies on the curriculum is minimal with just one course cut – the European Computer Driving Licence Course (ECDL) – and no students must travel any further to lectures than before.
He said: “The majority of curriculum changes are around delivering the curriculum in a more efficient and effective manner. We had an average class size that was very low. We are seeking to operate on an average class size of around about 16 or 17.”
“There have been a number of factors we looked at, different delivery models but also what enrolment on some courses has been like over a number of years. Everything else, it’s been about may be instead of putting five classes on we’ve put three classes on.”
Getting its financial house in order means the college is able to offer full-time students, aged 16-18, free transport to those who live further than one mile away from the campus where their course is based. And where possible staff who were paid hourly rates have been given permanent contracts.
But there have been claims of mismanagement of West Cheshire College in the past before Dhesi, who has come from South Cheshire College, was in charge. There was historic debt relating to the £65m cost of building two new campuses in Chester and Ellesmere Port with insufficient funding – and the Handbridge base is arguably not in the most accessible location.
Dhesi is not allowed to discuss the size of the deficit at its height but admits the debt to income ratio was a staggering 96%. It has been repaid from a Restructuring Fund set up by the government to help colleges to recover the costs of implementing merger plans.
He insists the Chester campus, which now has a secure future thanks to the merger, is in a ‘great place’. “I think it’s a fantastic location. We’ve just got to make sure going forward, the way we develop the curriculum there meets the needs of Chester and meets the needs of the population of Chester as well. You will see those changes over the next two to three years.”
Because the other criticism levelled at the previous management regime was that faculties were located in the wrong places. Perversely, hospitality and catering courses are based in Ellesmere Port while engineering courses are run out of the Handbridge campus in Chester.
This situation will be reversed but the two buildings, which only opened in 2011, must be reconfigured at a cost. There is a plan to move engineering and construction to Ellesmere Port in a year’s time – engineering courses at Crewe will continue unaffected. Dhesi says hospitality and catering is staying in Ellesmere Port for now but will eventually move to Chester.
In addition, the open plan nature of the Ellesmere Port site made teaching difficult so partition walls are currently being erected at more expense. These changes are being financed by through a £3.2m grant from Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
Academically West Cheshire College was also slammed as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2015 but has made improvements under the leadership of Helen Nellist who is now deputy principal of the new college.
Dhesi refuses to be critical of his predecessors.
He said: “The easy thing for me to do would be to sit here and say everything was done differently or wrongly in the past. That’s not true because I’ve been a principal now for six years in three colleges. As a principal, I know you make decisions at the time with the information you have at the time.”
The original vision for the county’s FE sector was to create ‘The Cheshire College’ in a merger that would also have included Mid Cheshire College and Warrington Collegiate. Ultimately Mid Cheshire and Warrington went their own way in a separate merger.
But Dhesi is confident sufficient economies of scale will follow to put the new college on a firm financial footing. And while stressing he was not personally in favour of Brexit, it’s a reality that the skills required to match the needs of the economy will not be available from outside the UK in future, meaning FE colleges could benefit.
He concluded: “I’m really excited about the future of this college. We are on a very stable financial footing. We’ve got very clear plans for improvement and that doesn’t mean there isn’t absolutely fantastic practice going in already. Each college is complementing each other already but as a combined institution we will go forward from strength to strength.”