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Change of heart on mergers

Minister steps in over worries about super-sized colleges improving the quality of education.

Funding chiefs have revealed they are thinking again about the way college mergers are approved as super-sized colleges are formed at record speed. Nearly one in ten colleges is now in merger talks.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) has announced that it is consulting over possible changes to the criteria by which mergers are approved. The review will take into account the views of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) as well as the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

John Denham, secretary of state at Dius, has expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of mergers in improving quality.

City College Manchester and Manchester College of Arts and Technology last week won approval to create England's largest FE college. At least 35 colleges are involved in talks with neighbours to join forces or have had mergers confirmed already this year.

Last year saw eight mergers completed, equalling the previous record years of 1999 and 2000.

If all those known to have started talks come to an agreement, it would mean 16 mergers in 2008.

Colleges in Wales are likely to see an even bigger upheaval, with the Webb review calling for all colleges with a turnover of less than pound;15 million to be merged with neighbouring institutions.

But the rush to make ever-bigger institutions suggests colleges are not heeding the warning John Denham gave at the Association of Colleges conference in November. "There is no evidence that larger colleges provide more effective education," he said.

Julian Gravatt, the association's director of funding, said there were financial and organisational issues that were driving the merger fever, but said they could improve education in some circumstances.

"Quite often the driver for mergers is financial," he said, "where you've got one financially weak college merging with a financially strong one, or there are two colleges that want to merge to make a bigger college that has the potential to do a large rebuild.

"Educational issues are important, of course, but they're not necessarily the driving force."

Nevertheless, he said mergers of unsuccessful institutions with thriving neighbours have worked - and students get a better education. Rycotewood College was successfully sued by students in 2003 for its inadequate courses. It is now part of Oxford and Cherwell College and rated satisfactory or better.

Research commissioned by the LSC in 2003 found that large colleges merging did find economies of scale and their size protected them in the market.

But financial benefits were rare and only came in the long term, while mergers created instability which could affect the quality of teaching in the short term.

Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union, said mergers tended to cause more upheaval and job insecurity among managers, while lecturers were relatively unscathed.

"We are not opposed to mergers where they make sense in terms of improving quality and making a stable financial future," he said. "Our main concerns are swift and meaningful negotiations over harmonising conditions and pay, and we would be arguing for the protection of jobs and the avoidance of compulsory redundancies."

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