Each of the land-based colleges dotted around the UK is unique and rooted in its local landscape, making a single definition difficult. But broadly speaking, they specialise in land-based subjects linked to agriculture, horticulture or the natural environment.
Landex, the organisation that promotes land-based colleges, has 39 members. Many of these colleges were founded between about 1850 and 1950, at times when the government and/or various philanthropic organisations sought to improve agriculture for the sake of the nation’s health and economic productivity. Some are still independent, but many have merged with other institutions. Many have excellent reputations for high-quality teaching and research, pastoral care, and in many cases for training learners with special educational needs.
Today, the development of their work and course content is being influenced by forces that are changing the land-based industries, such as the climate emergency, Brexit and the development of new technologies. This makes their work even more important, suggests Landex Chief Executive Alex Payne. “Land-based colleges are at the heart of the solution to deliver on the government’s priorities, including agri-tech, food security and environmental agendas, by training the skilled workforce required,” she says. “There is a skills shortage within the land-based sector, with a particular need for those trained at Level 4 and above.”
The good news is that interest in these subjects is increasing, including among young people with a keen interest in environmental issues. “Numbers of people wanting to study agriculture at Level 3 are rising exponentially,” reports Tim Whitaker, Chief Executive and Principal of Askham Bryan College, which teaches about 5,000 learners – including one of the largest cohorts of Level 3 agriculture students in the country – at its main campus near York and sites in Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Saltaire and Wakefield. At Moulton College in Northamptonshire, applications are up by 30 per cent in two years.
Demand from potential students is also helping the Berkshire College of Agriculture (BCA) to thrive. Founded in 1948, it has around 1,500 students and is still independent today, although not for much longer. Agriculture was not actually studied at BCA between the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease 20 years ago and 2015, when courses were relaunched in response to demand from local employers. In recent years, numbers of people wanting to study agriculture have been increasing, according to assistant principal Liz Hadden, and more now come from non-farming backgrounds.
Numbers of people wanting to study agriculture at Level 3 are rising exponentially
This is also the case at Capel Manor College in Enfield, north London, which has 2,000 adult learners and 1,000 students under 19 years old living all over the capital. Chief Executive and Principal Malcolm Goodwin prefers the term “environmental education” to “land-based” subjects, as the latter might be off-putting to some prospective students living in urban areas. He points out that the college’s location is not as strange as it might seem to those who do not know London well: about half the city is green space, including millions of gardens and hundreds of parks and other green spaces.
Most land-based colleges now have a strong environmental focus, driven in part by the colleges themselves and in part by learners wanting to make a positive difference to the world. Louise Fletcher, head of land-based studies at Moulton College, says a lot of work on the college’s 1,000-acre farm is now linked to carbon reduction and increasing biodiversity, through measures including planting on field margins to attract insects, birds and other wildlife, and changes in grazing, crop-spraying and fertiliser use. She says the focus on sustainability is also influencing the content of most land-based courses, including agriculture, horticulture, forestry and countryside management.
Course content is also influenced by the development of new technologies that may themselves help to improve environmental practices. They include technologies often grouped together as “precision agriculture”, which use automation, sensors, mapping, data analysis and artificial intelligence to try to improve efficiency and productivity. Examples might include systems that analyse soil to help optimise crop planting.
The colleges are working closely with technology firms to keep abreast of new developments. Moulton College has also created a new certificate in agricultural technology in partnership with agricultural machinery specialist Farol, which learners can work towards alongside their other studies.
Technology will also help farmers adapt to the post-Brexit subsidies regime that will be introduced by the UK government during the next few years, including the Environmental Land Management Scheme. This will have a strong environmental focus, with landowners encouraged to take action to help increase biodiversity and restore landscapes. Technology may help in multiple ways: for example, by providing devices capable of identifying different species of insects present before and after conservation work at specific locations.
When the pandemic struck, like other educational establishments, land-based colleges had to overcome issues related to providing online teaching, and supporting learners and staff suffering physical and mental health problems. Many of the colleges also had hundreds of animals on site that still needed to be looked after and crops that needed to be sown and harvested, so some staff continued to live and work on site during lockdowns.
As happened elsewhere, some beneficial effects resulted from having to use digital technologies. But even with well-produced video content and the use of virtual reality, as used by some of the colleges, it is difficult to teach agriculture, horticulture or animal-based courses without physical contact with plants and animals. At Moulton there was a strategy to keep providing as much face-to-face teaching for land-based subjects as possible. The college was even able to make a case for learners to come into the college to help with lambing during the first lockdown.
As lockdown restrictions eased, the colleges were faced with new problems, including the financial implications of making buildings and facilities Covid-safe. This was an unwelcome problem for colleges hit hard by funding cuts during the past decade. As Whitaker points out, land-based colleges “are expensive to run, with large estates, large infrastructure and expensive facilities”. Some earn additional income via farm shops or garden centres that sell the produce farmed or grown by learners, but this does not make a huge difference to the bottom line.
At BCA, the combination of funding challenges and a need to extend facilities to accommodate more learners – “at the moment, we are really bursting at the seams with students,” says Hadden – have led to a radical change. The college will merge with the Windsor Forest Colleges Group in July 2022, pending due diligence and a public consultation. The group already comprises two sixth form colleges, along with technical and vocational provision at Langley College.
“We will be part of a wider organisation with a stronger funding basis,” Hadden says. “Our non-land-based subject students will be able to access the Langley campus, while we will be able to develop more land-based courses on the BCA site.”
The BCA brand will be retained, but some in the sector are worried that as more land-based colleges develop closer ties with other colleges, something important may be lost – if not within the colleges themselves, then through decreased visibility of the subjects they teach.
“Sometimes the significance of specialism can get lost when you talk to senior people in government,” says Goodwin. “There’s a tendency to have big blocky qualifications and simplified funding routes – which is fine, but not at the expense of specialisms. I’d love to see a bigger range of qualifications at a range of different levels.”
Nonetheless, he remains “totally optimistic” about the future, as do his peers. “We’ve been through a really turbulent time, but we’re in a really strong position,” says Whitaker. “Sustainable agriculture and the environment are going to be absolutely key to the future of the UK over the next 200 years, so we have a vital role to play.”
David Adams is a freelance journalist
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