A YORK college is “financially failing” and needs to close a campus in Cumbria and sell it for £12 million to stave off insolvency, MPs told a Parliamentary committee.

Askham Bryan College’s serious financial problems were laid bare as principal Dr Tim Whitaker was grilled by MPs at a Defra select committee hearing on Tuesday.

Geraint Davies branded the college’s controversial proposals to shut and sell Newton Rigg in Penrith an “absolute disgrace”, while Barry Gardiner suggested Askham Bryan had “played something of a three card trick” on the people of Cumbria.

Dr Whitaker said he entirely understood the strength of feelings in Cumbria around Newton Rigg and said it had been “a really tough and challenging and a really difficult decision”.

But he continued: “I am the principal of Askham Bryan College and I am accountable for the whole of Askham Bryan College, over 5,000 students. The college is an independent body and ultimately, we have to remain solvent.

“We have not gone into this in any way other than looking at the overall position of Askham Bryan College as a whole.”

York Outer MP Julian Sturdy asked: “Are you saying that if the current arrangement continued, or was going to continue, would that affect the viability of Askham Bryan going forward, and could that mean both colleges could close?” Dr Whitaker replied: “Yes, absolutely.”

Mr Gardiner suggested the “three card trick” had been played when Askham Bryan acquired Newton Rigg in 2011.

He said Cumbria County Council had originally insisted upon an ‘asset deed’ ensuring that facilities had to remain there for further education purposes in the future, but the asset deed had been nullified when Askham Bryan bought it.

Dr Whitaker said he couldn’t comment because he wasn’t at Askham Bryan at the time, “but what I can confirm is that we have had definitive legal opinion that those incumbencies were removed at that point”.

Mr Gardiner said Askham Bryan College’s accounts for the year ending July 31, 2020, stated that a delay to the potential sale of Newton Rigg “indicated a material uncertainty which may cast doubt over the college’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

He said: “Does this not suggest that the sale of Newton Rigg is actually an attempt to stave off insolvency at Askham Bryan?”

He suggested Askham Bryan had run down Newton Rigg so it could be sold to raise £12 million that belonged to Cumbria County Council and then use it to prop up a “financially failing college”.

Mr Davies suggested the “right thing” to do would be to hand back the asset to Cumbria County Council rather than “asset strip it”, but Askham Bryan was “selling it off for £12 million because the (college’s) accounts show Askham Bryan wouldn’t otherwise be a going concern - isn’t that an absolute disgrace?”.

Dr Whitaker denied running down Newton Rigg, saying Askham Bryan had invested more than £4 million in the site, but he said it had been operating at a significant deficit.

'College is stable financial position'

Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and principal at Askham Bryan College, told The Press yesterday that the college was in a “stable financial position, having had to address long-term, historical challenges at Newton Rigg Campus after subsidising it for several years”.

He said in a statement issued after the Defra select committee hearing that this had cost the college around £1 million in 2018/19 and was independently assessed and audited.

He said: “We have a responsibility to invest in and ensure the very best experience for all Askham Bryan College students.

“Student recruitment to our York campus is buoyant with a 13 per cent rise in enrolments for 16 to 19-year-olds this academic year.

“The college has followed a rigorous, 18-month independent review process of its Cumbrian campus.

“This process involved sector experts, led by the Further Education Commissioner, and concluded that the closure of Newton Rigg campus was the only viable option open to the college.

“The process was also not able to find an appropriate alternative education provider to take over the site.

“We fully understand that this is an upsetting situation for the Cumbrian community, including students, staff, and wider stakeholders, and this difficult decision is an issue that they continue to feel strongly about.”