AoC increases membership fee for major college members to £57.7k

Several major colleges are reconsidering their membership of the Association of Colleges after the organization suddenly increased their fees by more than 20 per cent to £57,700.

At a recent meeting, the AoC board voted to maintain the organisation’s subscription fee at 0.1 per cent of a university’s turnover, but decided to increase the cap on membership fees, which has been set at £47,700 since 2019, by £ 10,000 increase.

It means that for every university earning more than £47.7 million, annual tuition fees will rise in 2024/2025, up to a maximum of £57,700.

Around 30 of AoC’s 178 general FE council members will be affected by this measure, which could increase the membership body’s income by around £200,000, or 3 per cent, depending on membership retention.

The increase comes at a difficult financial time for colleges, which have faced more than a decade of government underfunding and high inflation, leaving many unable to offer their staff adequate pay to cope with the cost of living crisis to offer.

AoC chief executive David Hughes said: “With more mergers since (2019) and high inflation, (AoC) fee income has remained flat, despite modest increases in overall university sector turnover. We know this is not an easy time to ask for more with the University’s finances under such pressure, but after five years without an increase we felt it was necessary.

The number of AoC members has decreased slightly from 221 in 2019/20 to 202 in 2023/24, mainly due to mergers. The company represents 98 percent of all general FE colleges and has 44 sixth form college members (SFC) – 55 percent of all SFCs.

Hughes said the contribution cap has made it “more difficult to continue to serve members and work on influencing and campaigning” in recent years.

‘It is important that we demand value for money’

The most affected leaders from major colleges who spoke FE week said they understood that to maintain a high level of service, rates would need to be reviewed. They spoke about the importance of the sector speaking with one voice through the membership organization and several praised the quality of the service they receive in return, including through strategy groups.

Janet Smith, principal of Nottingham College, also praised the AoC for “outstanding support” when her college was threatened by industrial action.

However, several colleges have objected to the size of the cap increase and are questioning whether they are getting value for money.

John Evans, chief executive of Cornwall College Group, said: “I’m struggling with it (the turnout). I fully recognize the role that AoC plays and the voice they give to the sector. But at a time when we’re struggling to give out rewards, I have to weigh whether it’s the right thing to use that money for.

“It’s quite difficult when you deny people a cost of living increase while paying it to the AoC. They (staff) will wonder what they get in return. I think the sector needs a voice, but it’s about how effective that voice is, I think.”

A source close to another major university, who asked not to be named, said its leaders were “unhappy” with the increase and were now “looking at our future membership”. “There is frustration among management. We may stay here, but our team is divided on the value we get.”

Some colleges raised the point that £57,700 could pay for two full-time staff, while others questioned the effectiveness of initiatives such as Love Our Colleges week. A couple also objected to the increase in the limit being communicated without consultation.

One college boss, who also asked not to be named, said: “There are a few of us thinking about the effectiveness of AoC and for the larger colleges this increase will sharpen that debate.”

A spokesperson for NCG, the country’s largest university group, said: “We are very keen to have a strong representative voice for the sector and AoC is the strongest voice we have at the moment. As part of the public sector, we believe it is important that we demand value for money from every member organization. We will continue to support AoC while working closely with them to ensure they serve the industry and NCG well.”

Elsewhere in FE, the Sixth Form Colleges Association charges members a flat fee of £10,100, while the Association of Employment and Learning Providers charges between £700 and £12,150 per year depending on the number of pupils the provider has.

In the higher education sector, where most universities have a turnover of more than £100 million, Universities UK charges fees of between £30,000 and £70,000 depending on size.

‘Raising the limit is intended to maintain the impact we have’

The AoC’s latest accounts, for the year ending March 2023, said the association “will remain financially strong going forward”.

Hughes, whose salary has remained at £185,000 for the past two years, said his organisation’s latest satisfaction survey showed almost 90 per cent of members were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the AoC’s service.

AoC, which employs 145 staff, recently downsized its London office to cut costs.

Hughes told it FE week: “There is a real desire among members to ensure our voices are heard over the next 12 to 24 months, before and after the general election. We are stepping up our policy work, which we believe is biting and has a big impact. Raising the limit is intended to preserve what we do and the impact we have.”