The former principal of Askham Bryan College, York, and Penrith’s Newton Rigg College says questions need to be asked about why student numbers at the Cumbrian campus have declined so sharply in recent years.
Liz Philip — who was in charge at the Yorkshire-based college from 2007 to 2016, and also of Newton Rigg from 2011 to 2016 — said she was very sad to hear the this week’s news, because Newton Rigg was a “successful and thriving place” while she was involved with it and never made a financial loss during that period.
She was not surprised that Newton Rigg had made losses totalling “many millions of pounds” in recent times, as claimed by Askham Bryan, but said this would have been due to the fall in student numbers from almost 1,000 when she retired in 2016 to just 536 this year.
She said: “When I saw the figures today I was shocked that there had been a 40 per cent drop in student numbers in just four years. I think people should ask Askham Bryan questions over why this decline happened.
“When I was there we always had to work hard to attract students, but the demand was there and it was perfectly possible to increase numbers.
“It seems very strange that 400 young people are not going there any more. How was it allowed to get to the situation it did?”
Askham Bryan has stated that four separate organisations, including two universities, have not been able to generate a student cohort or campus of enough critical size at Newton Rigg to be sustainable, and that detailed work on student demographics shows the number of young people in Cumbria will fall still further.
Mrs Philip said that while the use by Askham Bryan of funds from the sale of Newton Rigg might well be legal, she questioned its morality, with the losers set to be the young people of Cumbria.
She also criticised the basis on which the further education commissioner’s strategic review had been carried out, saying it had been too much to expect the organisations bidding to take over Newton Rigg to pay the full value of the Penrith campus and farms — up to £12 million — to Askham Bryan.
She confirmed that Askham Bryan paid nothing for the Newton Rigg land and buildings when it took over in 2011, although some payments were made for items such as livestock.
She added: “There is a genuine market for land-based eduction in Cumbria, so I hope some sort of successor to Newton Rigg can be found.” Also critical of Askahm Bryan’s actions were three Cumbrian peers and former MPs who are pressing for a parliamentary inquiry by the influential Defra select committee into its conduct.
Former Cabinet member Lord David Clark of Windermere described Askham Bryan’s behaviour as “shameful”, while Lord Dale Campbell Savours accused the Yorkshire college of acting like a property company.
Lord Campbell Savours said: “It is interesting to note from their accounts that their approach over the years has been to acquire the site for nothing and only invest in things which show up in their books as assets, therefore increasing their asset base.”
He added that legal advice he had received was that Askham Bryan’s charitable status did not compel it to sell Newton Rigg and keep the proceeds, as claimed, but left it free to pass the assets free of cost to another charitable body with similar educational aims.