With building expenditure in further education about to increase 60%, we highlight the challenges and opportunities in the sector
Further education is habitually viewed as the poor cousin of higher education. But with an annual expenditure of about £750m on construction, there is not much between the two sectors' plans for expansion. And with the Labour government's mission to improve education for all, building in the sector could rise 60% over the next three years and overtake higher education.

All learning beyond school and below the level of higher education in England is overseen by the Learning and Skills Council. The LSC's vision is that "by 2010, young people and adults in England will have knowledge and skills matching the best in the world." An ambitious target when in 1998, only 68% of 17-year-olds in the UK were in education or training, compared with an average of 89% for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Further learning, as overseen by the LSC, is divided into two broad streams: completion of education and training for 16- to 19-year-olds; and lifelong learning for adults. It is dispensed by over 400 colleges with an array of overlapping roles and courses, while private businesses and even housing associations are being actively encouraged to organise skills training.

The LSC combines the planning role of the former Training & Enterprise Councils with the funding role of the Further Education Funding Council. Over the past couple of years, its infrastructure and property services department has approved £2bn of building development, according to assistant director Philip Head. This year the council has dispensed £243m in grants, representing up to 35% of total development costs, with extra funds available to improve facilities for 16- to 19-year-olds.

Head is even more upbeat about the future. "We are hoping for an increase of 60% in capital funding between now and 2005/6, which will obviously be a significant sum," he says.

With such funds at their disposal, colleges across the country have been quick to undertake ambitious developments. Newbury College in Berkshire last year completed a £18m campus as the first of two PFIs in the sector. The City and Islington College has sold off six lucrative sites in central London and is ploughing the £50m proceeds into three new-build and one refurbishment project with architects Wilkinson Eyre and Van Heyningen and Haward.

"There is an increasing tendency away from refurbishment and into new build," confirms Head. "In 1993, colleges were made independent like universities. Many have increased student numbers, forcing them to find more space. New building is the value-for-money route, as it provides more flexible space than refurbishment."

To apply for funding, colleges must subject their estates and projected student numbers to complicated appraisal procedures similar to those laid down for universities. The procedure culminates in a strictly defined mathematical formula that produces the total amount of floor space required. If the figure is more than is available, the college can apply to the LSC for a development grant. Grants of up to £100,000 are available to cover consultants' fees for feasibility studies for projects over £5m.

Nearly all further education and sixth-form colleges belong to the Association of Colleges, which includes a network of estates managers. The network is run by Martin Pritchett, who advises members of all aspects of estates management and keeps lists of relevant architects and building consultants. Framework agreements are nearly unknown in the sector.

On the subject of procurement, Pritchett says: "There is no one approved route; the old Further Education Council of England published a best practice guide to procurement about four years ago, but this is purely guidance, not prescriptive."

Unlike universities, however, many sixth-form and other colleges are small organisations without the resources of a permanent estates officer. Stafford Critchlow, associate director of Wilkinson Eyre Architects responsible for the City and Islington College, says: "Many estates managers are inexperienced and put in bids that are too low and miss out enormous things."

Even bigger challenges in designing further education college buildings, according to Critchlow, are the low building budgets and the wide range of teaching requirements. "Approved building costs in further education are only about £900-£1000/m2, compared with £1100-£1200/m2 in higher education. No wonder many colleges end up with really terrible buildings with rows of rooms either side of corridors. We try to provide flexible resource-based learning spaces. But it's a challenge on a budget of £900/m2."

Useful contacts

  • Learning & Skills Council www.lsc.gov.uk

  • Association of Colleges estates network, email aocenet@netcomuk.co.uk

  • Further education symposium by the RIBA Learning and Skills Council forum at Newbury College on 14 April
  • Gateway to employment

    The £36m Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence in Dagenham, east London, is billed as Britain’s first vocational university. Conceived as a “one-stop campus”, it will offer 1200 students the full spectrum of learning opportunities from basic skills apprenticeships to PhD research. It is intended to supply a skilled workforce for the Thames Gateway, Europe’s largest regeneration project, and is the product of a unique partnership of public organisations and private firms, including the Thames Gateway Partnership to the Ford Motor Company, with funding drawn from the European Regional Development Fund, the Learning & Skills Council and other sources. Due for completion in September, the building is designed by architect Sheppard Robson and built by SDC, with Campbell Reith Hill as structural engineer, Whitby Bird & Partners as services engineer, Hanscombe as QS and project manager and Derek Lovejoy as landscape architect.