Bournville takes the bitter with the sweet

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If Bournville College ever needs a testimonial to its work, it should turn to Fitzalbert "Willie" Williams, a 42-year-old student on one of its catering courses. "It's absolutely wonderful. Personally, I get a high out of it every time I walk into the kitchen or see a frying pan," he says.

Willie decided to develop his love of cooking in 1993, after his painting and decorating business failed, and he has never looked back.

But while the past two years have seen high spots for the Birmingham college as well as for Willie, they have also brought bad patches. The college is facing a deficit of pounds 500,000 by July and is looking for 25 voluntary redundancies among its 260 full-time staff. Vacancies will be filled only where absolutely necessary.

The problem started with a pounds 90,000 bill from the local authority for money owed to it when the college gained its independence in 1993, and was exacerbated by a backlog of maintenance. Annual budget rises that have not met staff salary increases have caused further headaches, as has the fact that pounds 320,000 of European funding from 1993 is still unpaid. In addition, the college made headlines recently after it paid pounds 140,000 up front to community groups to run courses that later turned out to be non-existent.

The principal, Pat Twyman, is upbeat about the future, though: "Some staff don't like the way further education has gone, and in my view it's no bad thing if people like that leave, as long as they leave with a good financial package and with dignity. It will be a leaner, fitter organisation as a result." Her salary has risen by 8.9 per cent since 1993 - far less than the national average.

The problem with the community groups could have happened under local authority control just as easily, she says, and in fact the college saved pounds 1m of public funds by responding swiftly when it was discovered.

But incorporation has also given the college the freedom to launch new projects and to respond more flexibly to students' needs. The college has exceeded its targets for expansion in the past two years, and 14 new mobile classrooms will have to be brought in from September.

The college's business school, launched in 1992 with an eye to the future, has brought in pounds 370,000 to the college in the past year. In its first year, it had 500 students; this year, it has more than 1,200.

Mrs Twyman accepts that times are tough for many colleges, and says that while she still works closely with other principals, Bournville's own future and prosperity is her prime concern. "We are responsible now for our own destiny and, to some degree, you sink or swim. I don't think anyone wants to see a college go under ... but sometimes our staff and our students must come first."