Chapter 3: Options for a new College of Food

Recipe for change: The case for a London College of Food

Chapter 3: Options for a new College of Food

There are a range of choices about how the College of Food can fulfil the objectives set out above. In summary, we need to decide:

  • Mission: whether it provides highly specialised training for a small group of learners or more general training for a larger group;
  • Status: whether it is part of the further education system or the higher education system;
  • Structure: whether it is run as a new standalone institution or set up as part of a network or consortium.

This section rates six set up options against four criteria:

  • Prestige: creating a high-status institution able to attract talent and investment from across the UK and beyond;
  • Inclusivity: creating an inclusive institution that attracts students from a broad range of backgrounds, including people from poorer backgrounds, women and ethnic minorities;
  • Upfront costs: minimising set up costs;
  • Running costs: minimising running costs.

Mission: scale and specialisation

We need a system of culinary education that provides more chefs with basic skills and more opportunities to acquire advanced and specialist skills.

Culinary skills training can cover a vast range of skills – from universal requirements like food hygiene to very specialist training in cooking techniques and traditions, and indeed training on how to run a successful business.

In terms of the qualifications framework (see Table 5), most culinary training stretches from basic level 2 to advanced level 6. This framework is not perfect for skills-based learning, as some training will reach the level of a degree course in terms of skills required but will be much shorter.

There are clear trade-offs between offering entry-level and high-level courses, in terms of cost, prestige and inclusion. In general, more elementary courses will be delivered to more students – so there is the potential to generate high volumes of work and achieve economies of scale. However, they tend to be shorter, so the ratio of effort in recruitment to time spent with each student will be lower, and there is less opportunity to build up relationships with a learner over time. Providing higher level courses reduces the potential number of students and also reduces the ability to attract entirely new entrants to the profession, but may be more effective in building prestige and addressing shortages for specific skills. Indeed there is a need for training which is fairly advanced but is not delivered within the highly specialist and expensive private cooking schools.

Status: further education or higher education?

Post-16 education in the UK is categorised as either higher education or further education. Historically, higher education has been seen as more academic, more prestigious and less suited to vocational subjects, but the distinction in learning areas has broken down somewhat in the last few decades. New universities in particular offer a broader range of vocational learning, and many colleges offer academic routes. It is however rare for further education colleges to enjoy the same prestige as universities, and especially older universities.

The lowest level for formal higher education qualification is a foundation degree (two years of full time study) and most first-time students at HE institutions study for bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degrees, which last for three years. This means universities do not have much flexibility to meet the short term needs of employers. Shorter courses at masters or post-graduate certificate level are only available to people who already have an undergraduate degree. Universities are free to offer courses at less than degree level, for example summer short courses, but these usually only lead to a certificate of attendance, are not formally examined, and students can’t usually secure grants for them.

Universities have the power to define and award their own qualifications, subject to some regulation and moderation, to ensure that qualifications from different providers are broadly equivalent. But setting up a new course from scratch comes with costs.

Further education offers a much wider range of qualifications – from below GCSE level (school-leaving qualifications for 16 year olds) to the equivalent of a master’s degree. They also provide the classroom based learning element for most apprenticeships. Courses vary widely in length and time commitment, from a few hours a week over a few months to a year or more full time. Like universities, they can also choose to provide non-accredited short courses, either for personal enjoyment or for career development.

[table 5]

A key difference between further and higher education is how awarding powers work. Further education colleges offer courses which are accredited by an examination board like Edexcel or AQA. For many qualifications there will be several boards to choose from with slightly different course content. This means that colleges have less control over what they teach than universities, but they also have less work to do to develop and define their courses. It can be possible to start teaching a qualification new to the institution very quickly and setting up a new institution is also comparatively easy. It also means that the college does not need to persuade employers or learners of the value of their course, as in principle a T-level qualification in a given subject is the same wherever it is taught. For learners, this makes it possible to collect a linked set of qualifications from a number of different institutions – something which you cannot do at the higher education level.

Examination boards try to follow the needs of education providers, employers, and government policy in defining their qualifications: it is possible to advocate for changes to a qualification or for the creation of a new one. It is also possible – for a fee – to develop a qualification solely for a single organisation to examine and award. This is sometimes done by organisations who provide volunteering and employment opportunities and want to specifically recognise the learning people have done through their work.

Student finance is different for colleges and universities and this affects student experience. Full time undergraduate students studying for their first degree are entitled to loans to cover their tuition fees and their living costs. These are repaid through payroll at a fairly generous rate of interest, meaning that in practice many do not pay them off by the time the debt is written off. These loans are not available to further education students. There are some options for career development loans but these operate at a fairly small scale. However, because further education courses are generally shorter and often cheaper – and because some learners are entitled to have their fees paid by government – the overall cost of learning tends to be lower.

The funding of institutions themselves, as distinct from student fees, is discussed in more detail in Chapter 4.

Institutes of Technology (IoT)

The government is funding ‘Institutes of Technology’, which are collaborations between further education colleges and universities to develop technical skills courses in scientific subjects. London institutions have already bid and won two of these IoTs, and government funding rules mean that others should be created elsewhere in the UK, so other cities may wish to use this opportunity to set up a specialist centre of technology for food and hospitality.

Structure: a standalone institution or a network

In the past, setting up a new college meant building – or at least renting and fitting out – a new physical space. This was usually the model for new colleges and universities in the 18th to 20th centuries, although some initially used temporary or informal spaces before they were able to raise the funds for a site. There have been some examples of recent new institutions occupying their own new buildings – such as the Ada College of Digital Skills – but this is now relatively unusual.

The advantages of setting up a new building are clear: it gives an immediate and strong identity, is a statement of intent that this is a major project, and gives the institution far more control over its own operations than using spaces which are controlled by other people. Building an impressive new building in a central location also has the potential to raise the prestige of culinary skills in general.

However, the challenges of doing this are significant. London property prices mean that purchasing a building or site of sufficient size would require huge investment: the Ada College of Digital Skills received £40 million in capital funding. 22 These costs would be much higher than for many other types of learning because of the expense of kitchen equipment and the space required to use it. Fundraising, purchasing and fitting out a site would take several years at least, and this could be a distraction from the immediate change needed in culinary education.

There are also challenges for students with a single-site model, and these would fall more on those with less money. London is large, and any site chosen would inevitably require a long journey across the city for many people. Travelling by public transport is expensive for people on limited budgets. Time spent travelling also eats into caring commitments or part time work. Only offering training on one site risks embedding rather than reducing inequalities if lower income students cannot afford to get there.

For these reasons we think the new College of Food should take the form of a network, albeit one directed and governed in a unified way.

How a networked College of Food could work

There are several ways a network could work:

1. A quality mark delivered by a third party

Under this model, there is no change in structures – colleges continue to compete for learners – but colleges or courses that meet agreed standards of excellence are awarded a mark.

The Mayor of London’s Construction Academies are a recent model of this. To address a lack of information on construction courses and their quality, the Mayor defined standards of good performance with employers and colleges, and awards a quality mark to colleges that meet those. Colleges re-apply for the standard every year. 24 London Colleges were awarded the Mayor’s Quality Mark in 2019.

The mark ‘levels up’ course quality, and offers greater visibility, but does not consolidate the course offer nor does it create a unified brand. This model is easy to put in place, but if every college is awarded the quality mark (as not being awarded probably leads to decline), it wouldn’t offer any distinctiveness.

2. A centre and satellite system

A centre and satellite model could combine the profile that comes with a lead institution, with the entry-level courses provided in colleges across the capital. The hub would be the lead campus of a new, informal College of Food – a natural home for advanced courses and international programmes, as well as public events and research and development. Local colleges across London would form satellites or spokes. These would provide foundation courses, foster and maintain relations with local employers, and engage with local schools.

This model would create a two-stage learning track: students would obtain a foundation course at their local college, providing basic skills and entry-level qualifications. These could be the first year of a two year vocational course (NVQ or T-level), or lower-level apprenticeships. Local colleges could also run taster classes for young people and work with school kitchens and cookery teachers.

Those who take a foundation course would then be guaranteed a place for a course at the ‘central’ institution, where they could develop more specialised skills.

This hub and spoke model is not untested. It is used for example in arts education, to allow people without previous experience to build a portfolio of work, and could be well-suited to a sector with a wide variety of positions and skills requirements. And the association with a new centre of excellence, and the opportunities that this would offer could boost the standing and attractiveness of existing colleges and courses.

But for it to work, all the colleges involved would need to establish some shared governance arrangements, adopt a common brand and agree joint objectives and course standards. It might make sense for the hub institution to lead on applying for and securing the accreditation for courses on offer, for all institutions taking part in the College of Food.

3. A federation of institutions

A third option would be for colleges to become part of a federation. A possible model is the University of the Arts London, a ‘university with six colleges’ – comprising the Camberwell College of Art, Chelsea College of Art, Central St Martins, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion and Wimbledon College of Arts.

The federation of arts colleges has a single board of external governors, who oversee mission and spend, and are supported by a corporate team. Heads of colleges are also members of the executive board.

A federation enables individual colleges to retain their brand, but arguably this is a merger in all but name, as it creates a single leadership team.

Setting up a federation is more justified when there is a degree of complementarity between institutions, for example, they might cover different subject or geographic areas. For example, it might make sense for the Westminster Kingsway School of Hospitality to join forces with the National Bakery School, a private cookery school that is successful at attracting international students, and colleges that serve other areas of London, such as Barking and Dagenham College.

  • 22 Buzzeo J. et al (2020). National Colleges Process Evaluation. Department for Education.