Debts could sink Devon’s last ag college

Devon’s last agricultural college is under threat of closure after amassing debts of £3 million.

Bicton College had been working on a rescue plan to federate with nearby Exeter College, which would have seen it retain its identity and name.

However, the plan now appears to be in tatters after the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) wrote to Exeter College to say it was withdrawing its investment offer.

The LSC said Exeter would have to take on two-thirds of Bicton’s £3m debt with a loan to make the deal work, which Exeter ruled out.

Bicton became Devon’s last agricultural college after Seale-Hayne College in Newton Abbott closed in 2005.

For the past 12 months, both colleges have been working towards a federation this April.

It was hoped that Bicton, which has 1700 students and 150 staff, would get further investment from Exeter, which has more than 4000 students.

Principals at Bicton and Exeter have spoken of their anger at the LSC.

David Henley, principal of Bicton College, said: “I am shocked and disappointed that the LSC decided to tell us at this late stage.

“It’s hugely aggravating for them to take this position.”

Mr Henley added that he was concerned for the students and staff and the “vital role” Bicton plays in supporting the rural community of Devon.

“The food and farming industry is incredibly important here so it’s unthinkable that we can’t find a way to take the college forward,” he added.

East Devon MP Hugo Swire said the LSC had asked Exeter to pay £1m towards the federation and absorb the rest of the £2m debt in a loan, but Exeter refused.

Exeter College principal Richard Atkins said: “The LSC wants Exeter to take on those historical debts as a loan.

“We are truly astonished at the high-handed approach. We can’t take on any significant loan which apparently we have to pay back in two years.”

The decision to take on Bicton’s debts could “detrimentally affect the stability of Exeter College”, he added.

Since the financial year 2006/07, Bicton College has made a cumulative loss of more than £2.2m, including the 2008/09 provisional deficit of £836,000.

No one at LSC was available for comment.

The row comes amid the release of several government reports raising concerns that young people are being neglected in rural communities.

It follows a recent report by the Royal Agricultural Society of England that the industry must recruit 60,000 new entrants in the next 10 years to maintain its current workforce.