Easton College merger will ‘help protect jobs’

One of Norfolk's leading colleges has unveiled plans to merge with a Suffolk college in a bid to create a prestigious base for agricultural education in the region.

Governors at both Easton College and at Otley College, near Ipswich, have given the green light to progress the proposal for a full merger – with bosses saying it will help to protect jobs, improve courses and give them the clout needed to bring more students from across the country to East Anglia.

The decision means Otley and Easton will now start the process of a merger, which would bring them together as one operation but with each college retaining its identity, name and campus.

In a joint statement, the two principals, David Lawrence from Easton and Philip Winfield at Otley, said: 'This proposal is about bringing together two strong colleges to create a specialist college in Norfolk and Suffolk of a scale to become a significant national player.

'We also see it as an essential step to providing increased opportunities for students of all ages and to meeting the skills demands of the industries we serve.

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'We have a long process to go through, but we hope by next summer we will have completed the work and will move forward as one team.'

The colleges, both of which have a similar sized budget of around �12m, have been forging close links for the last two years – for example, sharing staff and expertise – but the merger would formalise the relationship and take it that one step further.

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Mr Lawrence said they could share strengths: for example, Easton's strength is in agriculture, while Otley's is in engineering and construction.

He said they would be able to offer more opportunities to students to progress to higher levels of study and more choice.

He also pledged to do all he could to avoid job losses, saying: 'That's the absolute last place I want to go. If I can possibly avoid it, I will.

'We think we can be in the top six specialist land-based colleges in terms of scale if we do this.

'We are trying to protect employment in the face of reducing government grants. We have been successful at doing that so far, but this strategy will further strengthen our position.

'Of course, you can never offer guarantees, because we are at the mercy of the government, but the whole target with this is to protect employment and we are very confident we will be able to achieve that.'

He added: 'We both look carefully at vacancies. We know the government grant is reducing and we need to focus money as much as possible on teaching and learning for the benefit of students and we intend, if at all possible, to do that.

'We need to recruit from outside of just Norfolk and Suffolk. We are in a national market and we must reverse a long-term trend of exporting further and higher education learners.

'This isn't predominantly about saving money. This is about making sure we are in a strong position to meet the needs of the industries we serve. Yes, we have to be more efficient. That process has already begin and this will help it.'

The merger has been 'cautiously welcomed' by the University and College Union (UCU). A spokesman said: 'At the moment, UCU are being consulted by the college. We cautiously welcome the merger and there are still finer details which need to be sorted out with the employer.'

The work towards a merger is expected to take up to a year to complete and the final stage would be a request to the Secretary of State for consent to dissolve the two existing colleges and their governing bodies.

It will include a consultation stage with staff, students and many other bodies, which will probably take place sometime in the autumn term.

In recent years Easton College has opened a �5m equestrian centre, which includes an Olympic-size indoor arena, as well as a �3.2m tennis centre which has four indoor courts and four outdoor courts.


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