CHRISTOPHER Bridge knew little about the role of further education before he became associated with Colchester Institute.
By his own admission, he had had a privileged background, going from private school to university in Scotland where he studied law.
From there, he worked for Rolls Royce and the BBC before joining the NHS. He was chief executive of the North East Essex Mental Health NHS Trust for ten years.
Colchester Institute came on to his radar when he joined the NHS – and his affiliation with the college has not faltered.
“I was unaware of further education until I joined the health service,” he said.
“I was not aware of its importance to the community or its worth. When I came here in the 1980s, I realised what an important part of the community was filled by people who came here.”
Mr Bridge has been on the board of Colchester Institute for 23 years and is now its chairman. He is keen to spread the college gospel.
Colchester Institute teaches 12,000 full and part-time students across 11 sites in Colchester, Harwich, Clacton, Braintree and Witham.
It provides higher education to degree level and further education through a variety of vocational courses. It is best known for its arts, music, engineering, mechanics and hospitality and catering courses.
But Mr Bridge and interim principal and chief executive, Alison Andreas, also seek to be ahead of the game, providing cutting-edge training for new industries such as windfarms.
They believe the college’s role is intrinsic to the success not just of the students, but for the communities they live in.
They argue all communities need mechanics, hairdressers, carpenters, chefs, carers, plumbers, engineers and the like.
Mr Bridge said: “Take away the range of training we supply and you have a struggle as a society.
“We are the glue which keeps it together – we provide the cohesion.
“I realised through working in the NHS how important work is not just in the economic sense, but also the personal sense for an individual’s self-esteem.
“When I retired, I gave up a lot of groups but not the college.”
He added: “The jobs situation is not as it was ten or 15 years ago. It has changed dramatically.
“We need to make people employable. Equally, if you don’t have people with the necessary skills for employment, what is going to happen in ten or 15 years?
Where will these skills come from?”
Ms Andreas adds: “We work closely with employers and speak to them regularly about providing training to meet their needs now and in the future.”
But while the two are obviously sure of the college’s worth, they admit to facing a struggle in converting others.
The loss of specialist careers advisors has put the responsibility for further education choices on to teachers and parents. Ms Andreas said teachers often revert to their own experience in finding a career path – typically A-levels and university.
She explained: “It can be difficult to get vocational training on their radar. Our job is to talk to families and show what opportunities are available.”
They are also fighting academic snobbery and are grateful further education courses, such as the technical baccalaureate, are now getting recognition.
Students numbers have risen at Colchester Institute and are set to increase further as youngsters must continue education until they are 18.
Ironically, as the demand increases, the funding is dropping.
The college has a budget of about £40million a year, but funding changes mean it is £1.3million out of pocket this year.
To compound the misery, it is still paying for the disastrous redevelopment project which collapsed in 2008.
The college was encouraged by the Learning and Skills Council to bid for funds to redevelop its campus in Sheepen Road, Colchester.
The proposal was for the college to fund a £100million redevelopment of the campus using £30million of its reserves and a mortgage, with the remainder met from a grant from the Learning and Skills Council.
The college spent £30million on a new west wing and engineering centre, only for the Learning and Skills Council to belatedly realise it had drastically overcommitted funds.
Ms Andreas said: “The thing which was most galling was we put forward a project which would have cost under £30million. They said: ‘Think bigger’. We thought bigger and came up with a wonderful plan, but then it turned out they had bids for £5billion and only had £300million to spend.
“About 150 colleges were left in the lurch, all in different stages of development.”
The old library and the Hexagon had been demolished and the foundations had been put in for the new building.
The only saving grace is the college is now well placed to move ahead with a new £9million project and is waiting to hear if it has won funding.
“Grant bodies want schemes which are shovel ready,” said Ms Andreas.
“Because we have done a lot of groundwork, our plans are there.”
No one thinks it will be easy. The financial crisis meant the college had to make 70 posts redundant last year and staff have not had a pay rise in real terms for two years.
Mr Bridge said: “We have had five years of mortgage repayments and we don’t have the reserves we did anymore.
It is a tight ship.”
However, no more wholesale redundancies are planned and heads are turned to the future – to new projects, new courses and new achievements.
Mr Bridge’s enthusiasm is unbated and he is clear: “Education should not be for education’s sake,” he said.
“It should be for employment’s sake.”