ASKHAM Bryan College’s Newton Rigg Campus in Cumbria – which provides courses including forestry, horticulture, and agricultural engineering – is earmarked for closure in July 2021 after an independent review found the site is not financially viable.

The college’s governing body has decided to propose the closure of Newton Rigg after considering the findings of a Further Education Commissioner review of educational provision at the campus and in the wider area.

The closure proposal is subject to the outcome of a 45-day consultation process with 117 staff (79 full time equivalent roles) and the trade unions, which started on May 21st.

The college said it will be consulting individually with affected staff. Students, parents and carers, applicants, employers, local MPs, civic leaders, and community groups are being informed of the proposal. The final decision on whether or not the campus closes in July 2021 will be made following the completion of the statutory consultation in respect of College staff.

Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and principal, Askham Bryan College, said: “We understand the strength of feeling about Newton Rigg and the fact this will be upsetting news to our staff, students and the local community.

“This has been a very difficult decision. We regret putting staff at risk of redundancy. However, the review has confirmed that the campus is not financially viable from the college’s perspective and would require ongoing investment to keep pace with industry skills.”

He added: “Given the current economic climate, and the fact that no capital or revenue funding is available, we have no other option but to propose closing the facility in July 2021. We will do all we can to support our staff and students at this difficult time.”

Learning planned for the next academic year, from September 2020 to July 2021, will commence as intended. Student recruitment and enrolment will also continue, with all current and prospective students being informed of the closure proposal.

Apprenticeships for 2020/2021 will continue as planned at the Newton Rigg Campus until July 2021. In the event of campus closure, the college would seek to identify an alternative location for ‘off the job’ training provision in Cumbria.

Around 888 learners are based at Newton Rigg in Penrith. They include 667 further education students, the majority of whom are enrolled on one-year programmes, and 221 apprentices.

The Further Education Commissioner’s review, which started in March 2020 and concluded in May 2020, involved a wide range of stakeholders, and identified the following challenges:

  • Demographic challenges: The college faces low population density in the rural location of Cumbria, and future low demographic growth of 16 to 18-year-olds.
  • Student recruitment: Over the longer term, this is falling with insufficient local demand for specialist land-based provision, compounded by the declining demographics.
  • Financial losses: As a result of the above factors, Newton Rigg has an annual operating deficit of around £1 million and lacks a sustainable business model due to declining student numbers and demographics.
  • Estates reinvestment: In order to keep pace with the latest land-based sector skills needs, the estate needs around £20 million capital investment.

The timing of the proposed closure for July 2021 is intended to provide a window of opportunity for an alternative group or organisation to provide a potential solution.

Askham Bryan College said that, during discussions with various groups from Cumbria in recent weeks, there has reportedly been a high level of support expressed for Newton Rigg from various Cumbrian organisations and groups. The college said it would welcome working with these groups, over the next couple of months, if they wish to explore how they could deliver a Cumbrian-based solution for Cumbrian students should the campus close next summer, pending the outcome of the staff and trade union consultation process.

The proposed closure has been described as a “hammer blow” for the county by the University and College Union, which has vowed to fight the closure. Regional official Iain Owens said: "This is a hammer blow for the people of Penrith and Cumbria who rely on Newton Rigg to provide education for their young people. The closure would leave Cumbria – one of the most agriculturally-dependant counties in the country – without any specialist agricultural education.

“Cumbria is massively dependent on agriculture and this college is the only provider of agricultural training in the county. If it closes, and if you still wanted to do agricultural training, the nearest alternative is a college at Ponteland in Northumberland.

“If they [Askham Bryan] don’t want it – and clearly they don’t – it’s about finding an alternative provider. We need to maintain further education provision in Penrith and the surrounding area.”

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP and former Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, commented: “If Newton Rigg were to close it would be a massive blow to the Cumbrian agricultural sector which is the backbone of our local economy.

“We would see a huge decline in young people training to work in agriculture, with the nearest college offering similar qualifications being either in Dumfries or near Preston.”

Cumbrian peer Lord Inglewood – who studied at Newton Rigg as a young man – said: “We have to find a way to retain the provision of land-based training.

“A number of organisations are going to get their heads together, with the Local Enterprise Partnership playing a role.

“There are various other people who may be interested. Newton Rigg has been a very central part of our agricultural economy.

“This may well require some radical, out-of-the-box thinking.”

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