Horticulture colleges in England and Wales have been hit by "absolutely dire" changes in funding that will lose them money to train over-19s in 2010/11. This could lead to job losses and has been linked to a redundancy consultation at Writtle College in Essex, which is seeking to cut £1.5m of spending.
College bodies say new funding routes that aim to foster education for under-19s but make cuts of up to 25 per cent in funding for the over-19s could lower the number of skilled employees available to the horticulture industry.
North London-based Capel Manor College chief executive Steve Dowbiggin believes the effects of the changes will be "absolutely dire". But an industry campaign now seems to have made an impact on business secretary Lord Mandelson's thinking.
Dowbiggin says: "It is brilliant the way the Institute of Horticulture (IoH) and the HTA have articulated the potential negative impacts of the way the funding was allocated in horticulture.
"My main concern is that funding for adults is being reduced for horticulture, when we all know major meaningful recruitment into the sector is from adults and in a recession horticulture holds up well and offers opportunities for employment. People set themselves up as self-employed gardeners and small businesses as a way of getting off the unemployment register."
IoH president Heather Barrett-Mold wrote to Mandelson about the "fundamental inequity" in the funding and how the "methodology discriminates against the horticulture industry". She added that in further education courses for adults, horticulture attracts more than other areas of education, and that basing funding on 2008/09 creates a time-lag problem.
In response, Mandelson says that he appreciates the situation and hopes he will be able to account for the time-lag in the allocation process.
IoH head of horticulture and Writtle curriculum area manager (land and environment) Tom Cole says: "I'm not 100 per cent happy with it (the new funding routes). And I think quite a few employers aren't happy either. The new funding benefits 16- to 18-year-olds, but what are we going to be doing about the career changers? There is reduced funding and therefore less space available, particularly in work-based learning for 19 to 25s and 25-pluses. There is a need for this learning."
He says Writtle's work-based learning is "relatively small" but something the college wants to grow: "We get calls from employers wanting apprenticeships and advanced apprenticeships but, because employees are over 25 and there is a cap on that age range, they can't come onto the programme in the same way as 16- to 18-year-olds. This is pitching one group against another."
College heads admit that redundancies may be linked to the cuts. Writtle College plans to save £1.5m by making staff redundant after consultants, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, found that its staff levels were too high.
The Essex-based college has entered into a 30-day consultation period with all staff. Around 40 staff are likely to go, with as many as possible through voluntary redundancy. About 30 people were made redundant at Bicton College in Devon last year after college debts reached £3m. Horticulture colleges in Wales had difficulties dealing with a Welsh Assembly Government plan to slash funding to further education by £3m from 2009/10.
A Department for Business, Innovation & Skills representative defended the funding changes: "We have a duty to use taxpayers' money responsibly and fund colleges according to their proven ability to deliver the priority courses that help people to get on in life.
"When determining the adult learner responsive allocations, we use the most recent year for which we have complete data on college performance, so this year we have used data from 2008/09.
"However, we have updated this process this year by using the 2009/10 original allocation to underpin some funding protection. If a college's allocation, based on its 2008/09 performance, would have fallen below 75 per cent of its 2009/10 allocation, we have brought the allocation back up."
Changes in education funding for 2010/11
- Sixteento 18-year-olds' (includes 14- to 19-year-olds) education funding from the Department for Children, Schools & Families is rising slightly. For example, Capel Manor will get an extra £600,000 on a £2.3m budget for 2010/11.
- Employer-based apprenticeships and Train to Gain will come out even with a refocusing of cash to retrain the unemployed. This will reward colleges that recruit well and have high pass rates. Capel Manor got £430,000 last year and hopes to receive £520,000 this year.
- There is a big question mark over training for the 19-plus age group, with 15 per cent cuts countrywide. Even if colleges hit 100 per cent of targets, there will be 10 per cent cuts, up to a maximum safety net of 25 per cent cuts. Colleges will be hit hard because funding is based on 2008/09 data. The IoH has lobbied hard to explain how this disadvantages horticulture. "There is a huge amount of money not going into adult training but there could be mitigation for colleges," says Dowbiggin. He believes arguments about the London Olympics, green tourism and improving the living environment may help lower cuts. He hopes the extra money for 16 to 18-year-olds and employer-based learning will make overall funding approximately the same as in 2009/10 - £6.5m. The 19-plus funding is from the Skills Funding Agency, in the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.
- The industry buys its own training. However, the sector is struggling, so full-cost training has decreased across the sector.