College sell-off deprives west Scotland of rural education, says MSP 3

College sell-off deprives west Scotland of rural education, says MSP

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) has deprived future generations in the west of Scotland from developing agricultural skills by selling off a key Ayrshire campus, it has been claimed.

The Ferret revealed in March that Scotland’s colleges sold 115 land and property assets between 2015 and 2019. These included campuses, office buildings, car parks and other land.

Some 88 of these assets formerly belonged to SRUC, which sold swathes of land and property throughout its campuses in Aberdeen, Ayr, Dumfriesshire, Edinburgh, Fife and Inverness.

This was an 18 per cent reduction compared to the land it owned at the end of 2019. SRUC did not reveal its buyers or how much it made from its sale proceeds.

John Scott, the Conservative MSP for Ayr and a farmer, said that SRUC’s Auchincruive campus near Ayr was “sold off because it was an asset that could easily be sold off”. He fears that young people in the west of Scotland cannot feasibly commute to the “inaccessible” alternative campus in Dumfriesshire, a round trip of 70 miles.

The college said that asset sales were necessary to pay for the nearly £100 million “repairs and maintenance backlog” it had inherited from its predecessor, and to “continue to provide first-class education, research and consultancy services.”

An £8 million a year annual bill to run its estates was “the main reason” for selling the Auchincruive campus, it said. The college stressed it was “exploring options” for a new Ayrshire hub and “investing across the country with new facilities”.

The estate that made up SRUC’s Auchincruive campus was gifted to the college’s predecessor by the Hannah farming family in 1927 to help promote agricultural skills in Ayrshire.

But the campus on the estate’s east side was sold off “to pay off debts created elsewhere” in the college, according to Scott. “I have huge regrets about that because at the time it was a world renowned leader in dairy farming and food production techniques,” he said.

“Cast iron assurances were given that there would be a new campus created as part of the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) at Ayr, which would provide a replacement when the old site at Auchincruive was sold off. 

“But two years ago, SRUC decided that in future they will no longer provide that education on the UWS site in the centre of Ayr. This was only ever a poor substitute for the state of the art working farm site at Auchincruive.”

Restructuring at the college will see SRUC open faculties called North, Central and South and West. In 2018, SRUC said the Barony campus, near Dumfries, would act as the South and West faculty and run courses previously taught at Auchincruive.

Scott claimed the Barony’s location is impractical for people living in several west of Scotland regions, who now lack “an easily accessible college” to learn the best practices of dairy farming, conservation and other farming techniques.

“The farmers’ sons and daughters of Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and Wigtownshire are not going to drive approximately 70 miles to Dumfries and back on a daily basis,” he added.

College management caused ‘unnecessary uncertainty’

The Barony became part of SRUC when it merged with the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) and other rural colleges in 2012. A former staff member who worked at the Barony during the merger said it became clear that SAC planned to fully relocate the college to the Crichton campus in Dumfries town, with the Barony’s assets potentially facing the axe.

When assets began being sold off in 2015, the closure plans were slammed by local MSPs and the Barony’s former principal, who stressed that “the complex has had millions invested in it” by taxpayers. Our data shows that 25 properties at the Barony, including buildings, livestock sheds, storage spaces and animal pens, were sold between 2015 and 2019.

The decision to relocate the campus was later reversed but the former staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Ferret that SAC’s management “brought everything into unnecessary uncertainty.”

SAC’s approach “was quite high-handed, and had collaborative discussions and due diligence been done at the start of the process, it would have saved a lot of time, stress and money on consultancy fees,” the former staff member said. 

The South of Scotland SNP MSP, Joan McAlpine, was among those who opposed the selling off of the Barony. “I campaigned to save the SRUC Barony Campus back in 2016 after local people raised concerns about the disposal of land and assets in preceding years,” she told The Ferret.

“I was delighted when the SRUC senior management changed and the strategy locally changed also. They began to focus on the Barony which is vital to our agricultural economy and training land-based workers. I would be concerned if that were to change.”

SRUC said that in recent years, the management of its property and estates – including asset sales – was part of its wider plans to become a rural university.

“We have made a strategic shift away from a blinkered focus on bricks and mortar towards customer delivery,” said Professor Wayne Powell, SRUC’s principal and chief executive. “This includes the blended delivery of courses for our students and agile working for our colleagues.”

He added: “We have been actively investing across the country with new facilities for veterinary diagnostics, poultry research, animal care and equine skills, and improved spaces for students to socialise and study. Our recent and planned investments will outweigh any funds raised from the disposal of land and buildings.”

SRUC was still “committed to a place-based agenda” but was reviewing its estate “post Covid in order to meet the changing expectations of our students and our customers”, said Powell. The Barony campus would “focus on practical facilities and additional student support spaces” and had received £8 million of investment in “a state-of-the-art facility which aims to decarbonise the dairy industry”.

Powell added: “The facility will drive innovation, accelerate productivity growth, safeguard animal health and wellbeing, and develop new products from dairy resources. In doing so, it will deliver significant and inclusive regional growth to underpin the rural communities that are so important to the Borderlands economy and its regional identity.”

Header image: © M J Richardson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

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