Amalgamation stations

Lucy Ward

Feuding college organisations aim to settle their differences with a merger, reports Lucy Ward.

Two rival college organisations famed for their feuding and conflicting management styles have announced their engagement and set about planning their eventual union.

The boards of the Colleges' Employers' Forum and the Association for Colleges this week both agreed proposals to begin merger talks, ending months of speculation over their increasingly fraught relationship.

Officially, the objective is an equal partnership, founded to give the further education sector a united voice in the struggle for a high profile and maximum funding.

But while welcoming the planned merger in principle, the lecturers' union NATFHE and some college principals are warning that the roles of both organisations should remain intact in the new, unified body.

NATFHE has spelled out its desire to see the professional and education concerns which have been traditionally represented by the AFC kept to the fore, alongside the industrial relations issues handled by the CEF.

The union has enjoyed good relations with the association, but remains at loggerheads with the CEF, with whom it is still locked in dispute over moves to bring in new, tighter contracts for lecturers.

Beneath the surface, meanwhile, personal rivalries bubble between outspoken CEF chief executive Roger Ward and his AFC counterpart Ruth Gee, who both know only one - or perhaps neither - can survive an amalgamation.

Conflict between the two organisations originally set up to complement each other dates back as far as college incorporation in 1993, with college principals accusing Mr Ward of intruding on AFC territory.

In March, the AFC seized the initiative with a call for a debate on the future of both groups, amid fears that the Government could take advantage of the conflict to divide and rule.

Colleges, tired of watching their representative bodies sniping at each other, supported a switch to one organisation - with the bonus of a single membership fee. The recent election of a new CEF chairman, Keith Scribbins, helped to precipitate talks.

The details of the proposed merger will be thrashed out by a panel of three members each from the CEF and the AFC, with an independent chairperson. A hint of the conflicts to be overcome has emerged already as the two groups nominate their candidate for the role of chair - the forum is proposing Ken Ruddiman, principal of Sheffield College, while the association is adamant the talks should be overseen by someone outside the FE sector.

Publicly, both sides speak confidently of a positive outcome - the terms of the union could be resolved by Christmas, according to AFC chairman Michael Austin.

But beneath the warm words, accusations are flying of a covert campaign by AFC members to persuade colleges to renounce their CEF membership in a bid to weaken the organisation as it enters merger discussions.

Suggestions of an exodus are hotly contested by Mr Ward, whose organisation - with around 95 per cent of the 450 further education colleges as members last year - has seen five out of six renew membership for the new subscription year, with more renewals expected.

Solihull College principal and AFC council member Colin Flint, whose college allowed its CEF membership to lapse last year, suggests others may in fact have been prompted to re-join on hearing of the likely merger.

He favours talks, but insists both organisations must resist pressures for a "hostile takeover".

NATFHE, meanwhile, is hailing a merger as a path to a speedier resolution of the protracted contracts dispute, claiming the CEF has never taken educational issues sufficiently into account in negotiations.

But union spokeswoman Paula Lanning said: "What we would not want to happen in a single organisation would be if professional and educational concerns, which the AFC has been very good in keeping to the fore, were lost."

The move to merger negotiations was approved unanimously by the CEF's board, which also agreed a proposal to co-opt active AFC supporter John Skitt, principal of Barnet College, on to the board as a "critical observer". Inviting a known critic into its ranks allows the forum to claim it has nothing to hide as discussions get under way.

A representative of the AFC, whose board also unanimously agreed to begin merger talks, said: "It is not very helpful for the sector to be divided. The merger really is being seen as the best way forward."

The three panel members from each side were being selected as The TES went to press.

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