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After so many mergers, why so few statistics?

The further education sector is diverse, rich, complex - particularly so in terms of the past and future landscape of partnerships, collaborations and mergers. Most weeks, FE Focus carries articles covering some aspect of the changes around collaboration and merger - recently, for example, "Female heads chopped more swiftly when colleges merge" (April 30).

Merger programmes in FE have been on a large scale. In Northern Ireland and Wales, after national reviews recommended reorganisation, the merger process reduced 16 NI colleges to six. And in Wales, following the Webb review, there are now seven mergers involving 15 colleges and 16 consortia-type arrangements. In England, there were at least 69 mergers between 1997 and 2009, even though mergers have not been promoted as a result of any national review process.

It would be reasonable by now to expect a body of objective evidence around the outcomes of this process - evidence which considered planned and expected outcomes and assessed them against those achieved, with a clear rationale around why benefits had been exceeded, which benefits had not been met and why, and identifying any unforeseen benefits or disadvantages.

This evidence is crucial because much is promised in the restructuring process, reconfiguration is expensive, and the outcomes are significant to learners, staff, employers and local communities - and to other providers considering restructure.

A recent review by Oakleigh of the research available in this area suggests very limited data has been collected, collated and published. Where evaluation reports do exist, they seem to remain largely internal to the institutions involved.

There have been some overarching reports (for example, by the Learning and Skills Network, and for the Learning and Skills Council by Warwick and Leeds Metropolitan universities) and some consideration of college size in relation to mergers. The drivers for merger and restructuring can be gleaned from the policy review documents and framework requirements - for instance, Models for Success (Dius 2008) - and, in some of the reports, the views of principals involved have been sought to offer a perspective on factors critical to success.

But the evidence base seems to stop there - no objective, statistical evidence on benefits and outcomes is visible. We argue that, for such a vital issue, it should be.

It would be a fairly simple matter for research to be commissioned, taking a cross-section of merger and collaboration projects and their clearly stated, intended benefits at the outset (both the intended benefits of the education and business cases) and to compare the outcomes two to five years later.

Statistical evidence should be collected, but a range of stakeholders' views (and lessons learned) should also be sought from across the previously merged organisation - at all levels and across academic and service areas, and from learners, employers and key stakeholders.

Then we would have the evidence to judge the success of the restructuring process and offer the right pointers to others travelling along the same path.

Julie Tolley, Principal management consultant, Oakleigh Consulting Ltd.

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