Leaders from across the hospitality sector have expressed dismay at the closure of Runshaw College’s restaurant due to government funding cuts – and expressed fears that it won’t be the last.
“The year-on-year cuts to further education funding make it extremely difficult for colleges to operate their own restaurants,” said Terry Tinton, head of faculty for hospitality, culinary arts, business and IT at Westminster Kingsway College in London.
“While our restaurants are trading well, we fear that Runshaw’s will not be the last college restaurant to close – denying a generation of students the opportunity to work in one and only widening the skills gap further.”
The Lancashire college’s Foxholes restaurant was the first college to win the AA College Restaurant of the Year award in 2016 and the institution counts two-Michelin-starred Moor Hall chef-patron Mark Birchall among its alumni, who described time spent in the restaurant as “an integral part of college studies”.
A spokesperson for the college said the costs of running a training restaurant are “extremely high” adding “due to nine consecutive years of government cuts to further education funding in England”, the restaurant has closed its doors after 31 years.
“It’s a shame because it’s one of the things that not a lot of colleges have and you’re losing a really valuable tool of education,” said Tom’s Kitchen chef Tom Aikens, who benefited from a college training restaurant at City College Norwich. He is currently hosting New City College catering students at his restaurant in London’s Chelsea.
“It really gives you first-hand experience of being under the pressure of a kitchen and trying to coordinate service, and learning how to deal with issues without having ‘proper’ customers as such,” he added.
“The guests understand that it is a training process… if it’s not going to be in a college it’s going to have to be in a proper, functioning restaurant.”
Tinton added: “The experience that culinary students gain from learning in a realistic working environment like a college restaurant, is invaluable and is the perfect preparation for their progression to gaining work placements later on in their studies.
“At Westminster Kingsway College, we have seen for ourselves the massive difference that working in our two public restaurants has made to our students’ confidence and skills.”
Andy Woods, deputy director hospitality and catering at Coleg Cambria, said the closure of training restaurants is “detrimental to the industry” and acknowledged that it’s “really difficult” for them survive. He said: “we have to diversify what we do and try and raise the profile of the college restaurants as much as we can”.
Coleg Cambria has two college training restaurants, Y Celstryn and Hafod, and Woods describes the college’s approach as “heavily commercial” – they cater for weddings, food festivals and birthday parties.
“Maybe we need to see colleges reflect the industry a little more by opening longer hours, possibly weekends, to generate that income to help supplement funding from the government,” he said.
He also called on high profile chefs to get behind their local colleges – Coleg Cambria does events in partnership with chefs like Gareth Ward and the college launched its Bryn Williams academy in partnership with the chef last year, which Woods says they are seeing “a real positive impact from”.
“I still keep in touch with some of my teachers from college,” added Aikens, emphasising the importance of chefs “keeping the doors open” as a training facility to their local colleges.
He added: “I know how difficult it is placing inexperienced students [and] it’s all very well being shown what it’s like but when you don’t have the environment to go with it you never really get a true understanding of knowing what it’s like of being under that pressure.”