THIS July, as things stand, Newton Rigg College will close its doors for the last time, bringing an end to 125 years of learning.

Generations of farmers have cut their agricultural teeth on what has been described as the ‘Pride of Cumbria’.

The county is the second largest producer of both red meat and milk in the country. It’s flagship seat of learning could soon disappear.

The success of former students in farming and other business cannot be measured, but what can is the anger and sadness within the agricultural community over the decision, by its owner and education chiefs, to close the Penrith college for good.

Parent college Askham Bryan at York says it’s invested millions of pounds in the site, but campaigners and staff say it would now be difficult to salvage anything. ‘There is a ‘gradual decline’ at the campus with buildings described as ‘in a terrible state’.

Campaigner, Dr Julia Aglionby, Armathwaite farmer and executive director of the Foundation for Common Land, says the behaviour of Askham Bryan since 2011, when it negotiated its deal, has been questionable in many regards. “It appears it obtained assets assigned for the further education and training of Cumbrians, at a fraction of their market value (£630,000), and now plans to sell them at full market value (£12m) to prop up a Yorkshire College in financial straits.”

Dr Aglionby added: “But amongst all these shenanigans we must remember what is at stake – the future of young people seeking an education in agriculture, conservation, forestry and gamekeeping.

“Their education will suffer as they are now at the whim of the fragmented provision that is already emerging as well intentioned initiatives seek to pick up the pieces. We as a county will also lose a college that is critical to supporting our 2,000 plus farms thrive as they lean into the most significant change in support for the agriculture sector since the Second World War."

“We have the opportunity to help transform farming businesses to thrive in the new world; delivering a suite of outcomes from food to carbon and biodiversity and to be at the heart of tourism and green energy initiatives.”

Cumbrian peer Dale Campbell-Savours, who succeeded in obtaining a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Newton Rigg closure, says the sale was being driven by Askham Bryan’s ‘desperate need’ to cut debt and reduce expenditure.

“There were statements made during the Commons inquiry which are simply untrue and they will be challenged,” he said.

“The claim that they have made a substantial investment is misleading. They invested in property improvement, grant-aided to boost their balance sheet. They did not invest in students, staff and equipment. They cut them all."

“The estate has collapsed into disrepair under Askam Bryan .The whole story is a disgrace. They claim stability in the management of Askam Bryan finances. If that’s the case why sell off the Crown Jewels that are Newton Rigg?”

Neil Hudson, Penrith and The Border MP, says the EFRA Select Committee inquiry has requested additional information from Askham Bryan about details concerning their acquisition of Newton Rigg and the background to their subsequent intentions to depart from Cumbria.

He said: “We await this information and this will inform the response the Committee makes to the inquiry session, along with the concerns we will raise with Government on future provision of land-based education locally and nationally.”

Dr Tim Whitaker, chief executive officer and Principal, Askham Bryan College, said while he recognised the closure of Newton Rigg was a ‘very upsetting’ situation for the Cumbrian community and that feelings ‘continued to run high’, measures to make the campus work were not viable.

“Since 1992 four separate organisations, including two universities, have not been able to generate a student cohort or campus of enough critical mass or size to be sustainable,” said Dr Whitaker.

“Subsequently, over £4.4m in capital investment has been made at the site and the college has subsidised a significant annual operating deficit at Newton Rigg amounting to around £7m between 2011 and 2020. We have a responsibility to ensure the very best experience for all Askham Bryan College students. As a result, difficult decisions have had to be taken."

“Nationally, the financial landscape for further education colleges is tough after a decade of being underfunded. Every further education college in England is facing an increasing share of pension liabilities. Although, we have faced financial challenges Askham Bryan College has not, as has been the case elsewhere, required any formal financial intervention.”

Richard Rankin CEO of H&H Group said: “By closing Newton Rigg we are losing a significant opportunity to provide and maintain the important training and education within the county and we will then be wholly reliant on external sources.

“Also if there is no Newton Rigg, we run the risk of putting people off going to that next stage of their education, this is not something anyone wants and it will certainly be the county’s loss.”

South Lakes MP, Tim Farron said: “It is not right that the nation’s foremost agricultural county should lose its foremost agricultural institution, doubly so when there are still active bids to save it.

“The Government can’t stand on the touchline doing nothing – if they truly believe in supporting agricultural education then they need to put their money where their mouth is and help us to save Newton Rigg.”

Adam Day, Managing Director of the Farmer Network, who have offices on the college site, said: “We are in limbo. The EFRA select committee meeting raised more questions than answers, but as of yet gives no steer as to whether the campus and farms can still be sold on the open market.

“Meanwhile the Newton Rigg staff and students are scrambling to find places in order to continue their education through other learning establishments.”

A motion condemning the ‘sell-off’ of Newton Rigg College at Penrith was passed at last weekend’s Northern TUC Conference, moved and seconded by Penrith and the Border Labour Party members Iain Owens and Karen Lockney.

The conference condemned the decision of owners, Askham Bryan College, York, supported by the FE Commissioner and the Department for Education to close the college.

It was resolved that the TUC Northern Executive would write to the governors of Askham Bryan, the Secretary of State for Education and the FE Commissioner condemning the ‘act of educational vandalism’, and to seek support from the shadow Secretaries of State for Education, and Food and Rural Affairs for opposition to the closure.

Dr Aglionby continued that rather than ‘weep over the past and the slight of hand of others’, now was the time for political, government and education leaders to step up and develop a co-ordinated approach for land based provision for Cumbria.

“We may have to write off Newton Rigg’s £12 million of assets and start afresh with a new model– or buy them back - but that is peanuts compared to the annual turnover of our agriculture sector of over £250 million per annum.

“For the future of our hill farming sector let’s move forward through co-ordinated investment and leadership to build a strong prosperous, healthy and green future for Cumbria’s land and agriculture sector.”