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HS2's college fails its first year

Lucy Alderson

In October last year, the National College for High Speed Rail opened its new Birmingham and Doncaster campuses with a great deal of fanfare.

Built with the vision of training thousands of engineers to work on HS2, the colleges were described by transport secretary Chris Grayling as “vital” for the delivery of the £55.7bn project.

Education secretary Justine Greening, who attended the opening of the Doncaster campus, said the college was a “win-win for everyone”, with the college’s chief executive Clair Mowbray describing the launch as a “momentous day”.

Unfortunately, the college has so far failed to live up to the hype.

The Doncaster and Birmingham sites can cater for up to 1,600 students each.

But at the start of its last academic year in October 2017, the NCHSR had just 47 learners on its books across both colleges, according to its own records.

The two sites are expecting around 300 students to arrive in a few weeks’ time for the new academic year. 

I visited the Doncaster campus last week ahead of the new arrivals, though it was still open to existing students.

While it will soon be a bit busier, the college still felt more like a ghost town than a campus as we toured the facilities, during which time I only saw around 20 students.

Even with a further 300 coming in, it’s clear the NCHSR is still struggling to fill its classrooms.

The college’s commercial finance director Martin Owen told me the number of students on the books is “obviously going to [be] fewer” because the college is still in “start-up mode”.

For sure, it’s always harder to sell something new that has never been tried and tested before.

But what makes the situation more perplexing is that the collage buildings themselves are major selling points.

As I toured the Doncaster campus, it was striking just how attractive and inviting a place it was to study. If I was a student I would be excited to learn in these spaces and use the state-of-the-art equipment available.

So for Mr Owen to say the NCHSR has come a “phenomenally long way in a very short space of time” may be slightly generous, considering that it only had 93 students at the peak of the last academic year.

Granted, the college could not have pre-empted the funding issues it has run into.

The launch of the Institute for Apprenticeships in 2017 brought an overhaul of the way such courses are assessed and funded, throwing the budgets devised by the NCHSR in 2014 out the window.

It was expecting £29,000 of funding per apprentice. But under the IfA, it has received just £21,000 – a decision that left it facing a £7.5m funding shortfall over the next seven years, according to college records.

One thing is for sure: the college has not yet become the roaring success some were predicting this time last year.

If it can’t help itself, then the government will need to step forward to ensure the college succeeds – before it becomes a further political embarrassment.

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