When the Government announced dramatic rises in fees for older students in further education, there were widespread concerns that horticultural colleges would be badly hit, with some of the most pessimistic forecasts suggesting courses would collapse. Mercifully, colleges - and the industry - seem to be weathering the storm and many are working hard to find new ways to recruit students.
Tom Cole, head of faculty for land and environment at Writtle College, says older students are still applying for courses. "The majority of the older students want to stay on. Our numbers have been hit, but it's not as catastrophic as we feared," he adds.
Under the new rules, which came into force this academic year, colleges have to charge older students (aged 24 and above) the full cost of their courses. This is a severe blow for career changers moving into land-based industries.
Chris Lambert, head of the horticulture and countryside department at BCA (formerly Berkshire College of Agriculture) explains: "We have to charge a lot. We teach arboriculture as part of our courses. We can't just stick people in front of a computer to teach them skills. We've got to have trained staff and we've just spent £800 on four new chainsaws. Proper training is expensive." The cost at all colleges is high. At Reaseheath College, for instance, a 24-year-old will pay £5,380 to do a one-year course in horticulture to level 3.
Capel Manor College chief executive Steve Dowbiggin says: "This has been particularly bad for horticulture. The rules discriminate against certain kinds of careers. If you're teaching someone about leisure management, students can do most of their learning in a classroom. With land-based studies, they have to use chainsaws or drive tractors. A great deal of the work is hands-on. This is expensive.
"Until this year we were charging around £500 for an 18-month level 3 course. Now it's around £9,000. The Government will provide loans but many older people are deterred because they don't want to be saddled with a debt."
At Capel Manor the situation is particularly worrying because at least half the people going into the industry seem to be career changers. In the summer, before the academic year began, the college only had 22 adult applicants for level 3 horticulture, down from 260 the previous year. It fears that income could fall by £400,000 as a result.
However, the situation, although still serious, has improved. "We've currently got about 200 adult applicants," Dowbiggin adds. "We're about 25 per cent down. We do have a problem with recruiting, but we're not in a crisis situation."
At Writtle, the new fees have had an impact. Cole explains: "We've managed to fill all our places, but there has been a slight shift at level 3, away from older students. At level 1 we normally only take school students, so that's unaffected.
"At level 3, around 40 per cent are 24 and above, so they are having problems. A one-year course - leading to a level 3 diploma - costs £4,000. A further year's course - leading to a level 3 extended diploma - will cost a further £4,000. We've found that a majority of the students in the 24-plus category want to stay on. But it will be interesting to see how many decide to leave after the first year."
At BCA, Lambert has also noticed a marked difference. "We're charging £6,000 per year for a two-year programme," says. "For many, it's too much. There are Government loans, available through the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, but many question whether they can afford it."
He adds that many people seem to be going straight into horticulture work rather than doing courses. "I think they'll find it's a false economy. They'll have trouble rising up through the career." He also finds that many students are doing the cheaper RHS courses, primarily aimed at enthusiasts rather than professionals, simply because they are cheaper.
Lambert estimates that last year there were around 100 full-time and 20 part-time students - a total of 120 in the horticulture and countryside department. The total is now around 100. However, there are bright spots. The number of apprenticeships being run through the college is rising. "We're fortunate that Berkshire is prosperous, so there are plenty of sports grounds and golf courses. Last year we ran 10 greenkeeping apprenticeships. This year it's 40," he says.
There has been a drop in demand at Pershore College. Fees are currently £8,000 per year for a two-year level 3 course - previously it was £2,500 per year. "We're getting relatively few people in the 24-and-over bracket so we're looking for new ways of recruiting," says assistant principal Julia Page.
The land-based colleges have been pulling out all the stops in an effort to market themselves more aggressively. At Writtle, Cole says: "We're doing trickle marketing. We run events every month. We're open on Saturdays to show facilities to prospective students and we work closely with local schools. We're very focused on people between 16 and 20 and promote horticulture as a career." Research done by the college shows that these initiatives are proving their worth in terms of income and recruitment.
The college is also working closely to recruit the unemployed. In addition to liaising with Jobcentre Plus, it has also forged links with housing associations. The local Swan Housing Association has set aside funds for training and is currently funding two apprenticeships with another two due to start in spring. All training for these is done by Writtle.
The college is offering taster sessions, with prospective students sitting in on lessons, usually for half a day. "The vast majority of students coming to these sessions express a real interest in moving into the industry," says Cole.
Pershore has also taken the promotional route. In addition to going out to schools, it took a number of stands at the Skills Show at the NEC in Birmingham (14-16 November) and it is attempting to recruit internationally. "We've employed an international agent. We're working closely with a college in the south-west of China to get horticultural students to come here," says Page.
BCA is also trying to raise its profile. Lambert explains: "We've just taken a new shop in Maidenhead. The local authority has given it to us free for the next two years. People can drop in to find out about courses." In September, the college opened a "pop-up shop" in an empty retail unit for a fortnight. "That was a great success and we'd like to continue it," says Lambert.
The college is also taking space at the local farmers market to promote itself and going to shows such as Skills London at the ExCeL in Docklands (22-23 November) as well as local horticultural shows in places such as Newbury. BCA is even leafletting local garden centres in its quest for students. As well as this, it has managed to get celebrity endorsements. It has recruited James Wong, the ethnobotanist responsible for the Grow Your Own Drugs television series, to give a series of 10 lectures to youngsters.
More controversially, BCA is changing courses to suit the new realities. "We've dropped the BTEC courses, which people thought were too academic, and we're doing more practical courses on such issues as how to start a small 'man and van' business. We're looking at more aspects of garden retail," says Lambert. Through these methods, BCA hopes to increase recruitment by 10 per cent a year.
There is also some hope that the Government might change its policies and allow colleges to reduce fees. At Capel Manor, Dowbiggin is optimistic. "I genuinely think that ministers might realise that this has been a big mistake," he says. "Government didn't realise the extent of the feeling this has caused. I think they might even reverse this."