Ministers are being urged to give rural colleges a fairer funding deal to stop them being hit by a string of closures.
By Hannah Goff
Education reporter, BBC News
Outreach centres in many English rural colleges are fighting for survival after a shake-up in the adult education system meant they lost some core funds.
College leaders say these centres are vulnerable because of the small pool of potential students they draw from.
The Learning and Skills Council said rural colleges had "as fair a crack of the whip" as urban ones.
Some rural colleges serve very remote areas like the Dales
Julian Gravatt, head of funding and development for the Association of Colleges, said he had heard many rural outreach centres were finding it tough to survive.
"With a college in a rural area, incomes are often pretty fixed because there is a smaller pool of potential students for the course.
"If a course becomes no longer viable, or if there is even a small change, it can affect the whole of the outreach centre you are running."
Wesley Johnson, assistant principal at Skipton-based Craven College, said the future of five outreach centres it runs in the Yorkshire Dales was hanging in the balance despite the college's best efforts to safeguard them.
David Curry, local MP for the area, has written to education minister Bill Rammell to highlight the issue.
Mr Johnson said: "It's really difficult - these centres are constantly being reviewed in terms of their viability.
"The irony is that the European Union has funded us to get to these hard to reach learners, but the system of funding that we have at the moment is putting that in jeopardy.
"It's purely about keeping these centres open. If we don't there's nothing there for these people."
Craven College was not one that was failing or badly managed, he stressed, adding it was rated very highly for its financial management and for many of the courses it provides.
Instead, he said, it was doing everything it could to ensure its survival in the most remote areas it serves.
The college argues that it and other rural colleges are discriminated against financially in several ways:
- Colleges are given extra cash for every student living in a "disadvantaged" area - urban colleges tend to get more.
- The system of funding for building projects favours large-scale schemes that are more likely to be undertaken in urban areas, rather than the smaller scale ones in rural outreach centres.
- The refocusing of government funds from short adult education courses towards those in key skills is hitting rural colleges disproportionately hard because of the population densities of the areas they serve.
"It is much easier to attract a viable number of students for, say an accountancy technician course in the town of Skipton - with a potential catchment of over 25,000 - rather than in the area north of Settle - with a travel to learn radius population of less than 5,000," Mr Johnson explained.
As a result Craven College had reduced its number of adult part-time courses from 200 to 80 over the last two years, he said.
Students in these areas were "spatially disadvantaged" by the long distances they had to travel to reach colleges, he argued.
Assistant general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Martin Ward said: "In rural areas, learners can't necessarily travel to colleges which may be a long way away.
"Whether they be small or large, colleges need to be bringing the college to the learner not vice versa - that means putting on more sites, not closing provision."
Director of funding and strategy at the Learning and Skills Council Geoff Daniels said funding was allocated to urban and rural colleges in the same way.
He acknowledged some urban colleges got more cash because their students came from more deprived areas, but said disadvantage in rural areas was also taken into consideration.
Colleges were given money to help students through learner support funds which could be used to aid those travelling long distances.
"We are not pretending that rural colleges don't have their problems, but we would argue that we try to give them as fair a crack of the whip as any other college," he added.