Worthing and Shoreham colleges face closure amid ‘serious and deep-seated’ financial issues

The future of three colleges in Worthing and Shoreham, plus another two in Brighton, are in doubt after the group was found to have ‘serious and deep-seated’ financial and quality issues.

An assessment of Greater Brighton Metropolitan College (GBMC), which was formed as a merger between Northbrook College and City College Brighton and Hove (CCBG) in 2017, has found the group has been deteriorating since its inception.

Compiled by the Department for Education, the assessment found ‘declining recruitment, income and quality, have, year on year, impacted upon the college’s operation, performance and sustainability’, needing significant cost reductions to salvage its future.

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The closure of at least one of its five sites has been recommended.

Northbrook College. Pic: Google Streetview SUS-191012-145840001

The Government department was forced to intervene at GBMC after it applied for emergency funding last year, without which it would have ran out of cash by June, 2020.

The report found that since the 2017 merger, student recruitment across the colleges has fallen, apprenticeships declined by around 30 per cent per year, higher education income decreased by a third and staff costs racked up to unsustainable levels.

After breaching a bank loan agreement last year, the group could be set to record ‘the lowest possible financial health score’. “This clearly demonstrates the college’s very weak financial position,” the report said.

GMBC’s current portfolio of five sites was ‘not sustainable’, according to the Department for Education report, and a new estates strategy was needed urgently in order to ‘generate sufficient cash’.

As well as the group’s Northbrook College sites in Broadwater, Durrington and Shoreham, there is a campus in East Brighton and a large site currently undergoing significant renovation in Brighton city centre.

The report said the group had considered consolidating Worthing’s two Northbrook College sites in Broadwater or Durrington into one of the existing sites, or closing them both to consolidate into one new site, but that plan was found to have ‘significant funding gaps and/or logistical issues’.

A spokesman for the college group confirmed it was looking at closing one of its five sites, but a decision had not yet been made.

“Before any decisions are made, we will be conducting a feasibility study,” said the spokesman.

“This will include mapping the provision across all of our sites – including those in Brighton – and looking at ‘travel to learn’ data so we can understand what would best meet the needs of the students and the local communities GB MET serves.

“The feasibility study will begin shortly and will conclude by September, 2021. Any decisions will be made in consultation with all of the college’s stakeholders.”

The spokesman said stakeholders included local Labour councillors, including an already arranged meeting with Worthing Labour leader Beccy Cooper, and relevant unions.

Labour councillors said they were ‘extremely concerned’ at the suggestion Worthing’s sites could be sold off.

“I am shocked and appalled at the gross mismanagement that has led GBMC to this situation,” said Dr Cooper.

“It is unacceptable that this lack of governance has been allowed to carry on unchecked for this length of time, and the Worthing Labour Group are calling for an independent inquiry into these failings.

“The future of the Worthing College sites are now in jeopardy, which puts the future of thousands of our young people at risk. Worthing has a growing population of over 100,000 people and these college sites are a crucial part of our area’s educational and development offer.

“There has been substantive investment into these sites, including state of the art theatre and music equipment on the West Durrington site. The Broadwater site also provides vocational education opportunities, which are too often overlooked and downgraded in our current education system.”

“The Worthing Labour Group stands firmly against any suggestion that these sites should be sold off to pay off the GBMC debts, and will stand in solidarity with all young people in Worthing to ensure their future.”

The University and College Union said a bailout would be preferable to an ‘unseemly asset fire sale’ that would be a ‘disaster for Worthing’.

In response, the spokesman for GBMC said it was ‘extremely disappointed’ both Labour and the union had released a statement before meeting with the college group.

Despite the grave financial and educational forecast for the group, the Department for Education’s report found the appointment of a new chairman in April, 2020, had seen ‘timely and decisive action taken’, including a refresh of the board’s structure and members.

The appointment of an interim chief executive, following his predecessor’s resignation in June, was also ‘encouraging’, the report found.

Last year, an Ofsted inspection rated Greater Brighton Metropolitan College as ‘requires improvement’.