The FE sector is creating landmarks for learning

Although it has been open for 18 months, some students still receive a shock when they step inside the Lifestyle Academy at Newcastle College. In addition to a lecture theatre, other teaching areas and a resource centre, the three-storey building includes two restaurants, a gym, hair salon and spa – all open to the public.

When diners gaze across the city from the top-floor restaurant, they could easily believe they are in a four-star hotel rather than a further education college, says the academy's director, Susan West.

Opened in September 2006, the £16m academy includes four departments – hair and beauty, sport and fitness, food and hospitality and travel and tourism. During the past two years, the number of 16 to 18-year-olds studying there has risen from 693 to 740, while adult enrolments have increased from 220 to 376.

"It's definitely been a magnet," says West. "Before parents and students come around, they imagine a college to be a stuffy environment with people sitting around desks. This is a real eye-opener for them."

Designed by Edinburgh-based architects RMJM and given its name through a local newspaper competition, the academy was built to feel modern and airy to attract a wider range of users than just students. All commercial operations are run by students as part of their courses. "They can immerse themselves in their vocation," says West. "They train on the lower floors and then go to real working environments where they provide a service to customers."

Other colleges are also seeing the benefits of investing in new buildings and facilities. Four years after South East Essex College moved into a £52m flagship building in the centre of Southend, applications are up 42 per cent. This year, it has 3,029 under-19s on roll, up from 1,983 in 2003.

With the University of Essex having recently opened a second building next door, the college sees the campus as a one-stop education shop within a few minutes' walk of the town's two railway stations.

Jan Hodges, the principal, says its open-plan offices and extensive technology help to prepare students for work. "A lot of people's experiences of education is of fairly run-down, uninspiring buildings," she says. "When they come here, there is a wow factor."

According to Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, the surge in investment by colleges during the past decade has been as much in response to demands from students for better facilities as the need to replace ageing buildings. "People's expectations are rising," he says.

Part of the costs are normally covered by the Learning and Skills Council, which is spending nearly £500m on FE capital projects this year alone. But colleges also raise money through land deals and loans.

Since 1993, when colleges left local authority control, about half of further education buildings in England have been modernised or replaced. "The sector has been independent for 15 years and has generated surpluses that make it attractive to lenders," adds Gravatt. In addition to modernised facilities, new buildings are expected to make more effective use of space and reflect environmental needs. Two years ago, Somerset College opened a £2.5m learning and resource centre, made with recycled and sustainable materials, that is seen as a showcase for the construction industry.

Blackpool and the Fylde College ripped out the entire floor of an existing building to create a state-of-the-art gaming academy, costing £800,000. Aimed at students on engineering and tourism and leisure courses, it been oversubscribed since it opened in 2006.

Earlier this year, the college joined forces with Greenwich and North Warwickshire & Hinckley colleges to set up a consortium – the National Gaming Academy – that is taking advantage of the casino boom by offering bespoke training to the gaming industry.

Students are also promised better college facilities in Scotland, where no fewer than 17 FE construction projects are in progress. Jewel & Esk College is due to open new campuses in Edinburgh and Eskbank this autumn, worth a total of £53m.

College staff have been heavily involved in designing the new buildings so that they reflect modern curriculum requirements, and Jewel & Esk principal Howard McKenzie is confident that they will attract extra students. "There has been a lot of liaison with business about what we should be teaching, and that's feeding into the design," he says.

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