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Colleges are thinking like a business – with chutzpa!

26 August 2014
by Trevor Sturgess

Thankfully, the world of academia is far more entrepreneurial these days.

In Kent, for example, East Kent College and Hadlow College are not only “doing” education – their traditional role – but also thinking more like a business.

While this of course involves taking risks, the slight difference is that part of the risk is alleviated by some public sector funding, which is almost impossible for the private entrepreneur to obtain.

Nevertheless, we should pay tribute to East Kent College for taking on the failing K college campuses in Dover and Folkestone and for developing a working hotel from its £6.5m project to transform the Victorian Yarrow building.

From left, Hadlow College finance director Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, principal Paul Hannan and vice principal Lynda Brown

From left, Hadlow College finance director Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, principal Paul Hannan and vice principal Lynda Brown

That will really give students a real-life hands-on challenge and better equip them for the world of work.

You have to open your mouth in awe at Hadlow College’s chutzpah.

Ten years ago, it was a financial and educational basket case. Now it’s rated outstanding by Ofsted.

It has business enterprise running through its veins, risking a lot on an equine centre in Greenwich, a free school in Hadlow, a multi-million sustainable regeneration project at Betteshanger, the former colliery near Dover, and now K College campuses in Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells and Ashford.

I worry sometimes that Hadlow has bitten off more than it can chew and that the K venture could be a risk too far.

But its track record so far is good enough to suggest it will succeed where its K College predecessors so lamentably failed, scandalously trailing debts of more than £16m.

That figure rises to a whopping 52m debt when the public deficit of an estimated 35m is added to the widely-publicised capital debt.

It’s wise of Hadlow to revive the West Kent College name, and to call the institution in Ashford, um, Ashford College.

You have to hand it to Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, the financial driving force, and the backing from principal Paul Hannan and the senior management team.

But change and ambition can be difficult bedfellows as far as culture and fellow staff are concerned.

Hundreds of people have lost their jobs at K, and no doubt some of the Hadlow team find things unsettling.

Others will find all this enterprise exciting. It’s been a dramatic roller-coaster ride. Some want to get off. Others enjoy the adrenaline rush.

But the key thing is what it does for students.

If all this change develops better skills and makes them more confident to succeed in the workplace, then that’s the bottom line.

And that’s not just for the students but also for Kent businesses and the economy.

Life after Pfizer - Discovery Park's second birthday party

When Pfizer made the apocalyptic announcement it was pulling out of Sandwich, it seemed like the end of the world for east Kent.

Yet two years after new kids on the block Discovery Park Limited bought the site, things are flourishing.

Job numbers are around 1,500 and it looks as though they will breach the 3,000 targeted before the goal of 2017.

From left, Discovery Park managing director Paul Barber, Dover District Council leader Paul Watkins, KCC leader Paul Carter, Science Minister Greg Clark, South East Local Enterprise Partnership chairman Peter Jones and Peakdale Molecular director Dr Matt Tozer

From left, Discovery Park managing director Paul Barber, Dover District Council leader Paul Watkins, KCC leader Paul Carter, Science Minister Greg Clark, South East Local Enterprise Partnership chairman Peter Jones and Peakdale Molecular director Dr Matt Tozer

There is a real buzz around the site, as palpably shown at the second birthday celebrations.
Goodness knows, it’s virtually unknown for a business to celebrate being two. One, five and 25, yes – but two, no.

But it’s worth celebrating something so remarkable as this phoenix from the ashes. After all, it’s a rare example of joined-up government thinking.

It may be on the extremity of Kent geographically, but Discovery Park is becoming the centre of the science and technology world.

People enjoyed a barbecue and entertainment at the second birthday party for Discovery Park

People enjoyed a barbecue and entertainment at the second birthday party for Discovery Park

It is an international destination that is setting new benchmarks. It has proved there is life after Pfizer.

But course, that’s a myth too. Pfizer is still there – in some strength. Great decision, New York.

Brown is best – so why no tax breaks?

When it comes to a choice between building houses on green fields or former industrial or now unwanted agricultural building sites, it’s a no-brainer. Brown is best.

But where are the sites? How many are there? Why aren’t they developed? Why, bizarrely, is there a tax advantage to building on a pretty field rather than an ugly derelict spot?

Some of these questions may be answered by the Waste of Space national survey by CPRE, the organisation that aims to protect the countryside, including Kent’s.

Residents are urged to send in photos of potential sites which will be logged on a website. It’s a good idea, and everyone should be encouraged to do it.

But don’t trust everything you see. There may be a good reason why a site languishes undeveloped. There could be legal issues, or it might already have permission but work is delayed.

The main scandal could be that an owner is holding onto it in the hope of appreciating land values. Or, perhaps more realistically, it would cost a developer a fortune to clear up the site.
Now that’s where Chancellor George Osborne should step in and offer tax breaks. Remediating brownfield land would help spare many of Kent’s green acres.

It’s Paramount there’s no penny-pinching

The north west of Kent is set to be an economic powerhouse.

Paramount Park (in Kent – we don’t like to call it London Paramount, do we?) and Ebbsfleet garden city are both on the horizon.

These will transform the area, generally for the better. Residents like the idea – but only if the transport infrastructure is right.

We need to put thought – and money – into infrastructure around the north-west of Kent ‘economic powerhouse’

We need to put thought – and money – into infrastructure around the north-west of Kent ‘economic powerhouse’

They desperately want the thousands of jobs and homes, and to be on the international map – but not if their lives are blighted by traffic and pollution nightmares.

The challenge for business and government is to invest enough thought and money into achieving the best infrastructure, and quality design that makes Kent proud.

Penny-pinching will not do for this great county – and Gravesham and Dartford in particular.

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