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Competition ends with a new name

Financial constraints and duplications have prompted many college mergers. The sign on the 1960s facade announces that the building is the home of Gwynedd Technical College: staff inadvertently using the name have put money into an already heavy fine box. The site in Bangor is now part of Wales's first merged college since incorporation.

Coleg Menai came into existence on August 1 with the amalgamation of the former technical college and Coleg Pencraig based at Llangefni, Anglesey. Two colleges which were once competing for the same students are now working in unison.

Students arriving for the start of the academic year joined colleges under their old name. It was felt it would be confusing to introduce the Coleg Menai name and logo overnight. But work is now beginning to establish the new institution in the public's mind.

Dr Haydn Edwards, the principal, admits that mergers inevitably create a climate of uncertainty and expose insecurities among staff.

"People immediately look to their counterparts in the institutions that are to merge and very often draw the wrong conclusions. Others see the merger as an opportunity, at last, to promote their own interests and ambitions.

"In a period where expansion of further education is not possible, mergers could lead to significant job losses. An expansion in provision has meant no merger-related job losses here."

The merger was first mooted in 1993 as both colleges were duplicating resources in expensive curricular areas such as engineering, motor vehicles and catering.

The money saved by pooling has been used to develop new courses and improve the local service. Projects such as increased international links and the outreach centres in the community can be more easily developed.

The merger has had the support of the Further Education Funding Council for Wales and was approved by the Welsh Office. The funding council believes the merger has brought rationalisation and an improved service.

John Andrews, chief executive, says there was wide support during consultations. "There were lessons to be learnt in the sense that the colleges had to go through a new process, but on the whole it went quite smoothly. "

Mr Andrews says the requirements on colleges post-incorporation are considerable, especially for small colleges. The demands of finance, audit, estates and personnel impose a level of central cost which it is easier for a bigger college to cope with.

He believes the creation of Coleg Menai - with its new corporation and governors - is being watched closely by other colleges in Wales. "A number are keeping their options open and there are some discussions already going on."

Dr Edwards confirms there have been a lot of enquiries from other principals "but every merger is unique to the local situation. We have learnt a lot. Colleges thought it was bad going through incorporation, but it was minor league stuff compared to a merger with its complex changes to manage."

A former principal at Coleg Pencraig, Dr Edwards was appointed acting principal at Gwynedd Technical College before the merger, which has helped to ease the process. He stresses that the merger is not seen as the takeover of a lame duck, but rather as a positive decision to improve the education resources of north-west Wales.

"The process continues we have to harmonise the way the two colleges operate; produce a college curriculum, establish a one-college way of doing things. A single enrolment and admissions unit will soon be established. We have merely started to create the unity we need. " There will be some movement of staff and students between the two main sites. Dr Edwards thinks the joining of the two staffs has helped bring forward new, creative ideas. The new college, the fifth largest in Wales with 2,785 full-time equivalent places, could now be more flexible and responsive, although some students might not realise the merger has happened until the new signs go up.

"What they will realise," Dr Edwards says, "is that there are now more courses available and they may be working with students at another site."

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