A murder on campus, fraud charges and spiralling debts pushed Hadlow College to the brink of failure. But in a turnaround worthy of a Hollywood script, it has come back fighting. Olivia Midgley reports.
Visit Hadlow College today and you will find an educational institution brimming with enthusiastic lecturers helping the agricultural entrepreneurs of the future carve out their roles in the land-based sector.
While the Kent college now has more students than ever and an annual turnover of more than £50 million, it is difficult to comprehend just how close the college was to collapse. Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, the corporate financier drafted in to turn the organisation around, says: “There was no strategy, no direction, no money.
It was just about to become another statistic.” Now the college’s deputy group principal and deputy chief executive, Mark first visited the college in 2002. As a 27-year-old leading a firm of City accountants tasked with auditing the college, he saw first-hand the dire state it was in.
He recalls wading through dozens of invoices to select those which had to be paid if its doors were to stay open. And, as a result, the college’s public image had also been badly dented. In 1998 a student was brutally murdered on campus by two other students in an unprovoked attack and the tragedy put an unwanted spotlight on the college.
The horrific act inevitably led to a major review of safety. Shortly after it was embroiled in another disaster, when members of the executive team were investigated for fraud. About 60 members of staff were paid off and middle managers were replaced.
Despite the turmoil, teaching standards remained good thanks to the strong leadership provided by Mark and the new principal who joined him, Paul Hannan. But with a turnover of just £5m and losses approaching £500,000, getting Hadlow back into the black was never going to be easy.
“The decision to save Hadlow was not made lightly and it was not on a whim,” he says. “It was a tough and calculated objective based on the college’s essential importance to the county.”
He says the secret was to stop treating Hadlow as ‘just a college’. “We adopted the principle of good business and treated it like a company. Students are our product.” Recognising private sector practices could be adopted to benefit and safeguard the institution from the vagaries of public funding, the business’ policy was developed to have three equal segments of income: further education, higher education and commercial activities.
“The idea is if one sector has a problem, the other two can redress the balance,” says Mark, adding the policy has since been partially adopted by other colleges. Thanks to various partnerships and deals and with a £1.5m injection courtesy of Barclays in 2002, Hadlow began its long road to recovery.
“We consolidated some areas and grew others. We re-engaged with businesses,” he says. “We also re-engaged with the farming industry. No farmer had been to Hadlow in decades.” In 2005 Hadlow was graded ‘good’ by Ofsted, attaining an ‘outstanding’ rating in 2010. With a new-found momentum and various partners by its side, Hadlow’s chiefs undertook a number of large-scale commercial projects, including regenerating the remains of the 121-hectare (300- acre) Betteshanger Colliery which closed in 1989.
Once complete the site will have a visitor centre, incubator space for embryo businesses and a laboratory for green technologies, plus education and training provision. As part of the London 2012 Olympic Legacy project, Hadlow teamed up with the Royal Borough of Greenwich, the British Equestrian Federation and Sport England to form the Royal Borough of Greenwich Equestrian Centre.
The unit provides training and qualifications sought after in the equestrian industry, as well as a BSc Hons programme in equine sports therapy and rehabilitation. Partnerships, industry and community relations are fundamentally important to the college.
Produced in Kent (PinK), a membership organisation which promotes Kent food, drink and crafts, is another good example of this. The college owns 49 per cent of PinK while Kent County Council owns the rest. Jill Sargent, head of membership at PinK, says the link between the organisation and the college is valuable to both sides. She says: “Innovation is so important in food production.
Yes, growing is important, but then we need the science and innovation, product development and entrepreneurial spirit to get it out there and into the market place. Hadlow harnesses this expertise.” Promoting local producers and their goods, PinK also works with consumers to educate them about food and help them ‘make the connection between what they eat and the countryside’.
This is something the college’s on-site sheep farm encourages as part of its lambing weekends, which usually draw more than 12,000 people. Hadlow’s head of agriculture, Scott Clark, says the event is one of many tools used to educate the wider community. He adds: “We aim to challenge and break the stereotype of the ‘old grumpy farmer’. We also work hard to attract young people. Our agricultural applications are up 65 per cent this year.”
And while the industry has been through some tumultuous times in the past few years, Scott believes the overall perception of the food and farming sector has improved. “Some students will see the latest industry downturn and poor milk price and be put off by this.
But I definitely think there has been a shift in attitudes of farming among young people, thanks in part to the media,” he adds. “People are now seeing greater opportunities in agriculture and horticulture. We are also seeing a high proportion of students from non-farming families.”
Scott predicts agriculture will enjoy a ‘boom’ phase, similar to what the IT industry saw in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“The innovation side is drawing people in and the male-to-female ratio has evened up over the last few years. “We need people with various skill sets; engineers, innovators, horticulturalists. We need grafters and stockmen. To farm sustainably you need a wide range of skills.”
Nurturing the young farmers of the future is a key focus for the college and in 2013 it opened the Hadlow Rural Community School, the only land-based free school in the country. Starting off in temporary accommodation, old pig stalls were converted as part of a £7 million project in 2014. Students follow the national curriculum while also spending one day a week involved in landbased studies.
Paul Boxall, the school’s headteacher, says demand for places is high and most have elected to continue their studies at Hadlow College with the intention of taking up careers in the agricultural sector. He says: “As we are so unique, students are travelling long distances to come here. Horticulture is such a major part of our county’s make up, but the industry is very scientific and if you haven’t got that base you are going to find it difficult.”
Mr Hannan, principal and chief executive of the Hadlow Group, says the college’s courses are designed ‘to produce the graduates and skilled entrants needed by industry’. “We are undergoing vast global changes which make the important contributions by Hadlow and other specialist land-based colleges even more crucial,” he adds. “The global population already exceeds 7.3 billion and the United Nations predicts this will reach 10 billion in 2056, six years earlier than originally predicted.
“Producing and growing food and the management of fisheries are prime objectives if we are to achieve food security for a vastly increased global population.”
Commercial enterprises produce one-third of the college’s total income while also providing students with paid work experience. They include: