In this article Ian Ashman, former college principal and FE adviser to Equals, writes about potential approaches to property planning and implementation following College mergers, in the light of his experience across a number of major rationalisation projects.

Property Rationalisation

One of the major potential benefits of merger is the opportunity to review and rationalise property.

An effectively implemented property strategy will have major educational and financial benefits, generating revenue savings and realising capital funding, which can be used to invest in better facilities for students on remaining sites, improving quality and strengthening the balance sheet of the merged college. As a result, property rationalisation can play a significant part in realising the vision for a better future, which lies behind all mergers.

Assessment of Space

A key starting point for a property strategy is an assessment of space needs in the light of the future development of the curriculum.

Rapid funding changes have tended to dictate short term approaches to college planning but this is one area where taking the long view is important.  Building from the vision and strategic aims of the college, managers will want to project forward, over 10 years, how the curriculum will develop both in terms of subjects offered and student numbers, as well as looking at quality improvement and delivery methods. This will allow an assessment of future space requirements – fundamentally it is day time, on-site guided learning hours, by space type which will drive most college accommodation requirements.

Some ‘crystal ball gazing’ is required. This will take account of developments such as T levels, replacement of classroom based provision with apprenticeships, increases in higher level provision, including in Institutes of Technology, changes between full and part-time programmes, to increase study by those in work, and any changes in delivery planned to improve quality or efficiency, such as increased use of ILT, could all have a fundamental impact on the space needed in the future.

Utilisation

It is also essential to undertake an assessment of how well space is being used at present, through a space utilisation exercise – this is likely to highlight types of accommodation and sites which are being underused.

Whole site closure can often realise the greatest benefits in terms of revenue savings and capital receipts, as well as allowing the college to give up locations with the poorest quality accommodation.

In looking at sites, rationalisation to pull out of whole locations will need to take account of community as well as curriculum needs. Changing travel arrangements for current students and staff can be unpopular but major benefits to both can accrue in terms of the quality of environment and on-site facilities. Avoiding mid-course or at least mid-year changes is advisable.

Development of Existing Estate

A further key assessment is of the condition and fitness for purpose and the likely non-college development potential of the existing estate. 

This will allow the college to address weaknesses and build on the strengths of its estate. It can also help free up land for commercial development, realising the capital needed, or the match funding, which is usually essential to making a major project feasible.

Key to this is the input of development expertise that will assure robustness in condition assessments and any land disposal income assumptions.

Many major projects will also rely on some grant funding.  For FE colleges, this has been managed since 2015 by LEPs, though this is being taken over by combined authorities in those areas with elected Mayors. LEPs and CAs manage the funds, often securing them through growth deals with central Government, and they manage applications. In some cases, the ESFA is contracted to undertake some or all of the following; financial and investment assessment, review of the strength of the educational case and/or assessment of property design suitability and cost. Otherwise, the LEP/CA may manage these processes themselves.

Generally, these involve a two-stage process – with an initial Expression of Interest and then a detailed application. Each authority will have its own guidance, though there are some useful, general materials available (see below). Fundamentally, any assessment will look at educational and employment benefits and financial impact during and after the project.

Developing Property Strategy

To develop your college’s property strategy, you will want to pull together a cross college working group, initially small, but involving key leaders of curriculum planning and delivery, student support, management information, finance and the estates team.

The leadership of the project by a senior manager who is or reports directly to the Principal, and has sufficient time for the role is vital. Identifying a lead governor can also be really useful, as Board assessment, approval and monitoring of major projects is an essential component of governance.

Engage with Experts

Finally, in my experience, external expertise, initially with experience in feasibility studies and costing is crucial to get your project to the point where you can secure the necessary approvals and funding to do the detailed development work and implement the project. 

Once you have got to that point, you will need a full design team’s expertise, including detailed design, engineering, cost control and project management.  In colleges, we know that our sector is unique in the breadth of impact it can have on the lives of students, communities and businesses and the breadth of its educational requirements.  So, I recommend selecting consultants with significant expertise and experience of property projects in further education colleges.

Ian Ashman, Education and Skills Consultant, Equals

About Ian Ashman: FE Advisor to Equals, Ian Ashman was Principal of Hackney Community College between 2007 and 2016, the AoC President 2016/17 and has previously worked in private practice, colleges, local government and the voluntary sector.

About Equals: Equals is an independent consultancy formed by highly experienced industry professionals providing project and cost management. We have worked successfully with a number of educational institutions at all stages of the design process from inception through completion.

Further Resources

Building Knowledge, Preparing Property Strategies: This guidance gives an overview about preparing a strategy likely to meet LEP requirements.  It is taken from the ‘Building Knowledge’ website, prepared by consultants and senior college staff, in association with RIBA and the AoC.

Learning and Skills Council (Though closed the LSC resources are still available): The Learning & Skills Council guidance from 2002 is still an excellent detailed resource for colleges, taking you through all stages for a strategy from strategic context, through detailed curriculum and space planning to implementation.

GOV.UK, SFA Capital Funding for FE Colleges and Training Organisations: Contains helpful investment appraisal models, which can be used to test whether investment programmes are viable and their rate of return and well as information on post implementation assessment.

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