NHS Internal Auditors led by Prof Tim Briggs recently said the NHS needs to put its house in order before asking for more cash, Prof Briggs says the NHS spends too much money on poor care.

So what would Prof Briggs say about FE? We don’t provide medical care as our major objective but could we apply this concept within an FE context? Would Prof Briggs be equally as damning about FE?

As I reflected on FE funding this soon saw me thinking about room occupancy and how outsiders would report our space utilisation rates.

One of the biggest expenses for any provider is space. Classrooms and workshops not only take up a lot of space they also take a lot of capital to build and cost significant sums to run.

In theory they are fully utilised around 3 terms a year and have been built to accommodate exactly the right numbers of students at a manageable cost.

But of course this is theory.

The reality is that with exams, trips, visits to the LRC etc classrooms often aren’t in use when timetabled. And for long weeks each year they stand empty.

Looking around your college today how many classrooms are stood empty?

Have you a strategy to ensure high occupancy rates over the summer? Are your workshops full of employees from local or national business doing refresher courses. Or maybe you’ve got other solutions.

Only this morning I heard from a provider that has a good strategy and is using a lot of classroom space over the summer. But most providers aren’t in this position. Most haven’t yet devised a written strategy .. some don’t even address the issue at all. So if you have empty rooms you are not alone this summer.

Empty space in colleges costs huge sums each year and most of us accept it without a murmur. Let’s face it this has been the way it's been for decades, the system was designed this way around the need for students to undertake harvest. Because farming dictated attendance in the past we still run a three term academic year. This has in turn dictated the number of teaching spaces we need. Although we are educating and training people for the current and future world of work our terms don’t reflect this.

In some parts of the US schools are now challenging this concept. In North Carolina the terms were based on the Plantation year, but some schools are breaking away from this and are starting to deliver a term structure that makes more sense to their students.

In the UK it is easy to say we don’t like change. To say that campus space is already determined and there is nothing we can do about it. Is that really true? Are there other solutions? What would Prof Briggs say?

Managing Space: The Word From On High

FE buildings cost a huge sum each year. Indeed the Management of Floor Spaces in Further Education Colleges (Sept 2016) paper states that “the provision of a single 25-person classroom requires around 70 square metres and this equates to £4,200/annum in running costs”.

Add on the capital cost to build the classroom in the first place and it is no wonder that some colleges are struggling to balance the books in an era when incomes are no longer growing.

The above document also goes in to the amount of space needed for teaching areas ..... in case you are wondering it ranges from one square metre per person in lecture halls to 7.5 square metres per person in engineering workshops.

And then you need to add on “balance space”. That's corridors, toilets etc to you and me. Plus you need support space for which a formula applies.

Phew! Lots of words and advice but no real answers on what to do now you have all that space, with perhaps fewer students and incomes that have dramatically dropped in real terms in recent years.

I recall the time when Adult budgets were good and we used many classrooms in the evenings. A lot of those courses are no longer viable because funding has been cut. And that actually increases the cost of teaching full time students (unit costs remain the same but are now covered by decreased usage). Space is a fixed cost so the more courses that can contribute to funding it the better. Better utilisation doesn’t mean increased teaching costs. It means spreading the same delivery costs over a smaller teaching area that is being used more cost effectively.

Unthinkable Answers

So thinking about that empty space that 90+% of readers will have. What are we going to do about it? Funding isn’t going to improve anytime soon so we need to take action before we too come under the spotlight.

In the short term we need to fill it during the summer. I don’t mean we just run a few Taster courses. I mean filled to the rafters with people on any type of course you can think of. And if you can’t run courses then fill it with people that are doing other things.

Of course we still need to undertake planned maintenance. But that rarely involves a whole campus; so we can use the space not being upgraded.

Now you may think this is difficult; but over 20 years ago I was running summer schools with national magazines and getting good summer occupancy rates. This will not fill every college in the country. But it's first come first served, and there is still scope for people to take staycation holidays in the UK and use your facilities.

At present airports in Europe are seeing increased security check queues, and as the number of safe holiday spots around the world decreases, we are seeing holiday prices rise. This means there is a growing opportunity for those providers that can see staycation opportunities.

One argument I hear against this type of letting is the volume of college resource it absorbs, especially staff time. If it absorbs any staff time this needs costing into the package you offer. In the above examples with magazine I brought in part time and contract staff so full time staff still managed to fit in their holidays without a problem. And if you think the package through carefully you can often find it takes much less staff time than you might think.

The next way to handle excess space is to ensure your full and part time courses are attractive to students and will recruit to capacity. It seems obvious, but isn’t always well implemented. Far too often I see courses running with low numbers or courses being cut and nothing new to replace them.

What are you doing to generate new courses? And are you planning them as conventional courses or are you building in a sensible amount of online learning? In fact could the whole course be taught online with minimal space requirement to produce supporting videos and undertake the admin. A total online environment isn’t suitable for most courses, we can leave that to the OU and a few others. But using Google Classroom or similar can make a difference and in many cases improves quality.

If your occupancy rates are really low, strangely enough you might in some senses be in a better position. It might be possible to let some space or even close a campus completely. Some providers are doing this but often the decision making time is long and costs continue to spiral.

Another thought is to do some sort of joint venture or building share. In some parts of the country there is a dearth of school places. So some sort of shared space between schools and FE could make sense, at least in the short to medium term.

Are We Too Ambitious?

This week I’ve seen plans announced for a new campus costing £57m. My first question is how is it going to be funded? Can we afford it on diminishing incomes. Especially as there is no certainty what those incomes will be in future. And as digital teaching grows can we cut space requirements a lot more. I’m not naive enough to think we can teach plumbing via a video. But maybe we can share workshops with a local plumbing merchant or boiler manufacturer. Or, as a college I used to work for achieved, let your purpose built workshops to an international manufacturer so they could train and update their workforce in the providers downtimes.

I’ve also seen a report on a college where the cost of its ambitious buildings project of a few years ago has NOT resulted in planned incomes and led to a Notice of Financial Concern.

I’m fairly sure Prof Briggs would say we need to get our house in order before asking for more cash.

The question is how do we cuts building costs; and that brings me back to occupancy rates.

Take one provider I’ve worked with. This week all there teaching space is full with their own students. In fact they operate 7 days a week for 50 weeks each year. There occupancy rates are sky high. Its way up in the 90+% range. They are not a typical private provider and most providers will not be able to achieve this for all sorts of reason. But we can emulate them in part and improve our occupancy.

If, as a FE provider, you could do the same then the size of buildings you need would plummet. You can sell off a lot of building stock or build new premises on a new site and have money left over.

The question is how can you ensure your premises have high occupancy rates.

The radical answer here is to rethink the academic year. For centuries we have followed a three term system but it is based on old technologies and unrelated professions. Just because farmers used to want young people in the fields for harvest years during the agricultural revolution is no reason for providers to close all summer during the digital revolution.

Most readers will find the idea of a 4-5 term academic year unthinkable. There are so many reasons not to do it and so many reasons why it can never work.

Yet providers already run apprenticeships 52 weeks a year. Most of them do it very well. Staff still get their holidays and the earth still revolves around the sun. There are even benefits to an extended year; but more of that in another article.

The answer for most providers may well be an amalgam of the above ideas. Each provider needs to define its own roadmap subject to a strategic review of the needs and opportunities in its locality.

The important thing is to take action. Carry out a Strategic Review. Produce a Strategic Roadmap and act upon it.

It’s easy to shrug change off and put new ideas in the “rubbish ideas” basket. But hopefully you can see the ways in which the above can be improved and adapted to your particular situation.

About Stefan Drew: FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US

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