Two Cumbrian peers have launched a withering attack on the sale by York-based Askham Bryan College of the historic campus at Newton Rigg, Penrith, with one telling fellow members of the House of Lords the move is an “appalling betrayal”.
In a debate on the Queen’s Speech held on Wednesday, former Workington MP Lord Dale Campbell-Savours described Askham-Bryan as a “predator college” and alleged that “behind a wall of limited financial reporting” Newton Rigg is being sold “by a team of Yorkshire accountants to pay off Askham Bryan College’s escalating debts”.
He said: “It turned out that Askham Bryan College, which was in financial difficulty and had an overstretched policy of acquisitions, had, behind closed doors, been methodically stripping Newton Rigg College of its student body, assets, equipment, reputation, apprenticeships, land bank, excellence, high-quality staff and national reputation.
“Those who have been responsible for this outrage should hang their heads in shame as they now proceed to sell off its assets through estate agents Savills in a grand fire sale.
“It was only when documents were leaked that we finally learned of the duplicity involved in this whole disgraceful affair.
2I say to those who are interested in feasting on our tragedy by destroying Newton Rigg College’s assets – we do not want you. What was once a viable institution, paying its way, has been driven through neglect into financial difficulty and ruin by Askham Bryan College.”
Lord Campbell-Savours claimed Askham Bryan College’s only interest has been the value of Newton Rigg’s £12 million, 1,000-acre land bank, which it “acquired for nearly nothing in 2010”.
He added that Askham Bryan’s claim to have invested millions of pounds at Newton Rigg is “totally misleading”, saying: “It includes student income raised in York from students in Cumbria; money spent on a farm and other projects, in part grant-aided, which was used to boost its balance sheet; and over £3 million in rents, which it received from the new University of Cumbria.”
Later, Lord David Clark said the plan by Askham Bryan to close Cumbria’s agricultural college had resulted in widespread anger across the county, but that the episode does not have to end in tears, with better solutions being available.
He said: “First, the Government must step in through the Education and Skills Funding Agency and sort out Askham Bryan’s debts. This may involve spending money – but far less than if they do nothing and let the closure of Newton Rigg and the asset sale proceed.
“With Askham Bryan and its staff and students safeguarded, the assets of Newton Rigg, including the two farms, should be transferred to a Cumbrian educational trust to be held in perpetuity for the people of Cumbria and their future education.
“Trustees and governors would come from local authorities, relevant interested local businesses, the Cumbrian LEP and educational experts of Newton Rigg Ltd.”
Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and principal, Askham Bryan College, said: “We strongly refute these claims, which are false and misleading.
“The allegations of asset stripping, bankruptcy, insolvency, duplicity and secrecy are all categorically untrue.
“Although Askham Bryan College has faced financial challenges that are common across the further education sector, it has not required formal government financial intervention from the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
“The college followed a rigorous, 18-month independent review process of its Cumbrian campus which involved sector experts and was led by the Further Education Commissioner.
“The college has communicated with students, staff and stakeholders throughout. The review process concluded that the closure of Newton Rigg campus was the only viable option open to the college. The process was also unable to find an appropriate alternative education provider to take over the site.
“For 10 years we have strived to make the provision of education at Newton Rigg campus sustainable and heavily subsidised the site, but, regrettably, it is not viable. Since 1992, four other educational organisations have also tried but not been able to make Newton Rigg sustainable and no obvious alternative providers have been identified since the decision to close was taken.
“Askham Bryan College is legally within its rights to proceed with the closure and sale of its Newton Rigg campus and this has been acknowledged by the government. Gillian Keegan MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Education, confirmed this in a response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Parliamentary Select Committee published last month.
“We have a responsibility to invest in and ensure the very best experience for all Askham Bryan College students across all our campuses. We regret the impact of the difficult closure decision on our Newton Rigg Campus students and staff and are doing all we can to support them at this difficult time.”
A statement from the college said student recruitment to the college’s York campus remained buoyant with a 13 per cent rise in enrolments for 16 to 19-year-olds this academic year.
The college, it added, has also attracted additional external investment as part of its involvement with projects such as the Institute of Technology, Digital Skills Academy, and BioYorkshire.
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