Recruitment of students at Doncaster rail college hit by uncertainty over HS2

It was set up as a high-profile college project in Doncaster two years ago.

Monday, 21st October 2019, 6:34 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 9:39 am

But the educational institution set up at Lakeside in 2017 as the National College for High Speed Rail has struggled to attract the number of students it had hoped to bring in because of uncertainty over the future of HS2, believes its chief executive.

To address the problems caused by the uncertainty, the college is now in the process of re-branding as the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure, with new courses set to be added to what has already been taught there for the last two years.

At present, the college has around 150 full-time students and apprentices on its roll. But it is aiming to reach a figure of 450 in 2022.

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Clair Mowbray, National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure Chief Executive. NDFP-15-10-19-Mowbray-1
Clair Mowbray, National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure Chief Executive. NDFP-15-10-19-Mowbray-1

Principal Clair Mowbray, who runs both the Doncaster college and a sister site in Birmingham, says the uncertainty over the Government’s flagship rail project has not helped it to attract students.

She said: “There have been a lot of positive developments for the college. Two years ago, we didn’t know how it would resonate with people, if it would capture their interest, and I think we’ve definitely seen that to be an improving picture.

“We have put a lot of emphasis on opening on opening the buildings, not just for college education reasons, but also to give back to the local community.

“But it has not been without its challenges. HS2 as a project has been subject to a lot of speculation over the last couple of years, and when you’re trying to establish something from a standing start, you feel the impact of that.

15 Sept 2017..... The National College for High Speed Rail in Doncaster ahead of its opening at the end of September. Picture Scott Merrylees

“But now we have 150 learners. We have some amazing case studies of people from Donaster who have gone on to get jobs in construction. We have someone working on the Midland Metro Project, we have people who have gone into jobs in development with Network Rail.”

Student numbers have been slower than anticipated, but Ms Mowbray says this year has seen its largest enrollment so far.

But she says the biggest challenge is not convincing students to come into the rail industry – it has been getting firms to create apprenticeships.

“If we advertise an apprenticeship, we get 30 applications for it – we just don’t get enough.”

The change in name comes after meetings with the college’s industry advisory board, as well as staff and students.

They have indicated that they would like the college to have a broader focus that still focuses on rail, but also looking at the wider transport and infrastructure industry

It is now widening its scope to meet broader demand across the sector.

“They were saying that no company out there is principally set up for high speed rail,” said Ms Mowbray. “We’ve done work for companies like Colas Rail and Balfour Beatty, but they work across transport, not just in high speed rail, so we decided to follow that advice.”

The curriculum at the college will now expand to include broader civil engineering.

The college is now in conversations with organisations including Highways England about how they can work together in the future.

Ms Mowbray said: “We’ve seen things like the Oakervee review, looking into the future of the HS2 project, which has really hit our recruitment this year.

“Without a shadow of a doubt uncertainty makes it more of a challenge, but it is important that we get the message across that a skill set in high speed rail is transferable to other industries.”

The Government-commissioned review into HS2 chaired by Doug Oakervee has yet to be published, but there has been speculation it could recommend major cuts to the northern route, particularly the line between Birmingham and Leeds.

The college is also looking to bring in new staff with new skills beyond rail, and will also bring in more peripatetic teachers – teachers who works at more than one base – as they are being asked to do work in other areas, including London.

The college is now offering a BSc programme that is the equivalent of a university degree.

Ms Mowbray believes it is important to attract people to visit the building, as that helps show that rail engineering in a modern industry. That is why she has been happy to see events like a Doncaster Fashion week show at the venue, and various careers events.

She believes the intake of students is diverse – 15 per cent are female, and the average age is 29, with many retraining there.

In five years she wants to see the college as the provider of choice for businesses that want infrastructure skills that industry needs.

The college is well known for its modern high speed train power unit, located inside its building, Later this year is is set to take delivery of another high profile piece of rail hardware, with a sleeper carriage set to be delivered from Spain, that will be kept outside the landmark college building at Lakeside.

In the meantime, the college continues to keep up its public profile by opening up to the community, with its latest open day for prospective students set for Wednesday November 20 from 4pm until 7pm.