The decision taken by Brooksby Melton College (BMC) to merge with another Leicestershire college was taken to stablise its finances and widen learning opportunities for the hundreds of learners who study there every year, according to principal Dawn Whitemore.
In an exclusive interview with the Melton Times, Mrs Whitemore explained that government funding cuts for further education and an inadequate business model had prompted governors to seek an ‘equal marriage’ with Stephenson College in Coalville.
Eight potential colleges were identified by an independently-managed process before the decision was made.
Big changes are planned in a bid to make BMC more financially viable in the short-term with the hairdressing salon set to close and the rural catering centre to be reconfigured into a new restaurant because of a lack of customer demand at both.
Discussions are also taking place to improve the way the associated Melton Theatre is run to make it more cost-effective as a leisure venue.
But Mrs Whitemore is excited about the potential of linking up with Stephenson College, which will be able to offer apprenticeships for students from both colleges and a studio school catering for young people who are not suited to the normal mainstream academic learning routes.
She said: “This merger is the most exciting opportunity we could ever have wished for - it’s going to be life-changing.
“In 10 years we will be looking back and saying that this was the most important decision our governors have ever made.
“It really is a merger of equals and we both bring something very important to the marriage - they are a cash rich college and we are an asset rich college with the land to enable both colleges to expand and develop.”
The merger of the colleges, which were both rated ‘good’ after their latest Ofsted inspections, will be finalised by February 1 next year.
BMC, which teaches 1,200 full and part-time learners every year, is a specialist further and higher education college offering courses in an array of specialist vocational subjects across its two campuses - the land-based Brooksby site and the creative and service industries one in Melton Mowbray.
It has highly respected courses in animal care, sports qualifications linked to professional clubs such Leicester Tigers RFC and Leicester City FC and an acclaimed performing arts offering.
The present college was formed in 2000 following the merger of Melton College with Brooksby College.
Stephenson College is a further education establishment with a state-of-the-art campus, completed in 2005, which is considered to be one of the best designed and up-to-date in the country. It also offers a range of higher education courses with 40 per cent of its educational offering linked to apprenticeships with employers, including national brands. As well as the Coalville campus it has an outreach site in Nottingham.
The names of the individual colleges may be changed to reflect their individual specialisms under the new joint set-up.
Mrs Whitemore said BMC was not in financial difficulties but was finding it a challenge to operate successfully in a climate of reducing government funding and there were also concerns that it was now possible for FE colleges to go bankrupt when it wasn’t in the past.
“It’s fair to say the Brooksby Melton College business model wasn’t quite right although we have absolutely loads of potential here,” she said.
“Our finances are satisfactory at present but if there was another change in the way the government funds colleges like us then we would not be financially resilient.
“Stephenson are outstanding in terms of their finances and by operating together we will be much more resilient to future changes in funding and we can also grow together by offering students more learning opportunities.
“More colleges are merging - 50 have done so this year already so this is nothing new.
“I wouldn’t be honest if I said there won’t be any redundancies as a result of the merger but I expect them to be minimal.”
BMC will continue to accept applications for the coming academic year and courses for current students and those due to start in September will continue as normal.
Mrs Whitemore said the college had ambitious plans to increase the number of residential students at its Brooksby site from the current number of 97 and it is also proposing to establish a school to train chefs on its rural campus.
She said: “We need to re-engineer the rural catering centre and we have plans to provide a more commercial restaurant in its place.
“This is linked to the chef school where students will be given jobs in the summer as part of their courses.
“The hairdressing courses will end at Melton but Stephenson College do offer them so our students will have the option to go there instead.
“It was a massive decision to decide to close the hairdressing salon but there was a lack of demand to use it.
“Having Melton Theatre on site is fantastic for our performing arts students but we need to look at ways to make that more viable to pay for its upkeep.”
Mrs Whitemore, who has only been principal at BMC for eight months, added: “This is my dream job because I am passionate about changing the lives of young people and I am very excited about the opportunities this merger will bring.”
Dr Nigel Leigh OBE, principal and chief executive of Stephenson College, said: “This is the most important decision our corporation will take and we are delighted to have found a partner with the same values and passion for learning, who complements the curriculum and resources we have at Stephenson College. “Both our colleges are confident that the benefits of merging will be transformational for all our stakeholders, enhancing the future skills development for our region.”
Any students with questions or concerns about the merger are being asked to contact staff at either BMC or Stephenson College.