Why you should care
Because in one of Britain’s most pro-Brexit towns, an educational company has global ambitions.
Saudi Arabia’s reform campaign under its impatient young crown prince is shaking up the Middle East. But its ripples are also being felt in Lincolnshire. The rural English county that was one of the country’s biggest supporters of Brexit is the home of Lincoln College, a vocational school that has quietly placed a big bet on education reform in Saudi Arabia.
In just four years, Lincoln has amassed Saudi contracts that account for nearly half of its 60 million pounds ($83 million) in annual revenues, and now has 300 staff in the country.
The school is hoping that its expansion into the kingdom will help secure its future in the U.K. — although it has been a bumpy road. “It is unusual, isn’t it?” James Pinchbeck, a partner at a Lincoln accountancy firm and chairman of the college’s board of directors, says of the budding link between the House of Saud and the Land of Brexit. Thanks to the Saudi venture, Pinchbeck’s fellow Lincolnites have been present to witness historic shifts in the kingdom. “Last time we were there they made the announcement about women being able to drive,” recalls James Newall, Lincoln’s marketing director. “You could really feel the buzz throughout the community.”
The idea was to train a youthful population suffering from high levels of unemployment.
It is heady stuff for a regional vocational school that trains 10,000 students on three U.K. campuses in everything from information technology to acupuncture. It even trains detainees in a migrant removal center to become baristas. Like other further education groups in the U.K., Lincoln has been squeezed financially in recent years as government funding has dried up and young people have prioritized university over technical education. Many colleges have closed or been forced to merge. “If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to diversify and commercialize,” says James Foster, who oversees Lincoln’s international business.
About a decade ago, the college began offering construction and then accountancy classes through universities in China. But its main focus has been Saudi Arabia, which in 2013 invited dozens of foreign groups to bid on contracts to operate technical schools under its “colleges of excellence” policy. The idea was to train a youthful population suffering from high levels of unemployment. It was a precursor to the sweeping Vision 2030 reform program recently set out by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, who is trying to revitalize the kingdom by remaking the economy and liberalizing society (to a degree). Providing technical education is a big part of the plan.
Lincoln ended up winning contracts in 2014 to run three colleges, valued at 250 million pounds. In spite of its thin international profile, the college’s bid was helped, Foster believes, by “the brand of U.K. education.” Lincoln’s board was hoping that a surplus from the Saudi contracts could be reinvested in its U.K. campuses. But, as Foster notes, “The reality was more difficult than we expected.”
Most of the 30-odd newly built Saudi colleges attracted far fewer students than anticipated — bad news for companies that were paid based on attendance. Pearson, the world’s largest education company, pulled out of its venture in 2015, with one of its executives warning that the Saudi contracts might “bankrupt” state-funded British vocational schools. Another group, Canada’s Algonquin College, lost $8.9 million. The companies were accused of getting into a market they did not understand and attempting to train Saudi students for jobs that were typically done by foreign workers.
Lincoln, which took out a multimillion-pound loan to finance the project, also struggled. It was more exposed than other British colleges since it had bid for the contracts alone, and not as part of a consortium. The Saudis eventually agreed to restructure the project, allowing Lincoln to jettison two rural colleges that drew few students. It was subsequently awarded a contract for another college closer to Riyadh, as well as a training contract with the health ministry.
One Lincoln-run school, the Qatif Female College, now boasts more than 2,000 students. They spend the first year improving math and English skills before specializing in fields like hospitality, business and health and safety that are intended to put them on a path to a job. “The critical thing is being employer-led,” Foster says.
Lincoln appears to have turned the corner: Last year it generated a surplus from Saudi Arabia that allowed it to repay a debt of 3.7 million pounds while also investing 350,000 pounds in a new computer system in the U.K. and hiring new teachers. Its executives are adamant that the international business is not a distraction from its home market but a vital source of support. “We’re seeing the benefits,” Pinchbeck says. Lincoln’s executives are now considering additional Saudi investments, including the possible creation of a driving school for women. Saudi officials visited London in January to drum up interest in a new batch of contracts.
MBS, as Prince Salman is known, was not among them — nor has he visited Lincoln. But he would be welcome. “We’d love to [host him],” Foster says. “We’d absolutely love to!”
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