The National Land Based College (NLBC) aims to be a hub where training providers and employers work together on new courses that are tailored for the sector and to set standards in partnership with awarding body City & Guilds.
Currently colleges have to be on the national qualifications framework but there are at least 14 awarding bodies offering qualifications in the sector. As land-based employers have minimal input into those qualifications, students often emerge from training unprepared for the workforce. The absence of a pre-training or sandwich work experience year compounds the problem.
But the NLBC's new chief executive, Leigh Morris, hopes the college can fix that problem by getting educators, employers and awarding bodies to work together. NLBC's remit covers a wide range of careers, from agriculture and gamekeeping through to parks management, landscaping and nursery growing.
It will provide blended learning using a hub-and-spoke model - a small central team will form the strategic focal point and run a virtual college providing online teaching, while land-based colleges and industry workplaces will be the spokes, delivering face-to-face and practical training.
Qualifications will range from foundation-level courses up to full degrees and will also include a raft of continuing professional development (CPD) options. The online platform will also function as a portal, linking to diverse land-based organisations and a CPD register for graduates.
Morris, who started his career at 16 on the Youth Training Scheme at Askham Bryan College, said the constant refrain for the past 30 years has been that graduates lack the skills they need for land-based jobs. "The national college provides a massive opportunity for our sector to unify around training, education and careers promotion, and we are absolutely going to be looking to engage with industry far more," he said.
"The NLBC is not looking to reinvent wheels or compete. We want to join the dots, share best practice and make qualifications fit for purpose." There has already been great excitement and enthusiasm from both employers and educators, he added.
He is now calling for help from the industry, including people to join the NLBC board and help write vocational standards. He also wants to find ways for students to get more on-the-job training - during or after their study - and needs industry input on the best way of doing that, as well as employers to provide work experience.
"I'm hoping we can pull industry in to contribute and they will see the national college is a place where they can have a direct input, as well as developing CPD and professional qualifications for people in their industry."
City & Guilds is already making changes, with its new level 2 and 3 qualifications being changed to include more practical work and industry engagement.
Morris has been pleased with the enthusiasm of the sector so far. For example, the RHS itself is an awarding body yet has helped input into the City & Guilds level 2 qualification. Morris said that is indicative of the RHS's "holistic" commitment to quality land-based education. The British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association has also offered to share its expertise after setting up its own training scheme. Morris believes other training providers and awarding bodies will be similarly generous because they will understand the impact this collaboration can have across the sector.
He is also confident that education providers will buy into the scheme, although it will take some adjustment. "There's huge backing from many big colleges. Out of 20 board members, 10 are principals of key colleges. They want this approach - they will want the NLBC badge to show they are quality. It's driven by the principals who feel their colleges are leaders and want to show they are of that ilk."
Good learning materials could be shared widely across the sector, rather than each lecturer having to produce their own resources. "Frankly, there will be a few colleges who haven't got time to get involved, but I predict in a few years they will be looking over the fence rather glumly."
NLBC has a board of 21 directors - 10 principals from UK land-based colleges and universities, 10 people from industry and chairman Lord Donald Curry. It is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee.
Seed funding has been provided by Landex member colleges, Landex and City & Guilds, which contributed £250,000 from its National Proficiency Test Council fund. NLBC will receive a percentage payment for all City & Guilds qualifications endorsed by the college, which is currently in a threeto six-month setup phase.