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Divorcees pledge to remarry as equals this time round

...while Martin Whittaker looks at the issues surrounding a proposed merger between the further and higher sectors

Sobia Jabbar is in her second year studying biomedical science at Bradford university, and is considering going on to take a PhD.

She has come a long way since leaving school at 16 with a handful of poor GCSEs. "I wasn't very confident in myself at all," she says. "I thought, if I go to college, what if I mess that up as well?"

But with support from tutors she persevered and took GNVQs in intermediate and advanced science at Bradford college before winning a place at the university.

The college and university share a campus, so moving from further to higher education was not too daunting a step.

And 22-year-old Sobia says being a student at her local university means she can live more cheaply at home.

Bradford's college and university have a history of collaboration that reflects their heritage - they were originally a single institution.

Now a proposed merger aims to bring them together again in a ground-breaking move that should widen opportunities for students like Sobia.

If granted ministerial approval, the merger will create a new chartered university by August 2004, offering a broad range of education from pre-foundation level to post-graduate awards.

This is not the first time further and higher education have joined forces. But what is new in this case is that the proposal promises to give further and higher education equal weight.

It has been heralded as a "historic event". Chris Taylor, vice-chancellor of the university said: "It is something that is unique - the kind of educational village with the escalator approach where students can see where they are going, they can get off, they can move into vocational, and they can see where they're going in higher education."

Alan Hodgson, principal of Bradford college, is no less expansive. "The meetings of corporation and academic board did feel historic. There's this strong feeling that we have been serving Bradford for a very long time - more than 170 years there have been different incarnations of the college and university."

What next? The two institutions are setting up a transitional governing body formed of equal numbers from university and college to oversee a merger implementation group to look in detail at how the new university is governed, its management and finances.

If the proposal gets through the West Yorkshire learning and skills council and Higher Education Funding Council, it will go to the Education Secretary for final approval.

But set alongside the enthusiasm of the college and university, the Learning and Skills Council's initial response to the merger bid seems cooler.

While there is general support for change, it says this is not a done deal and much work lies ahead. In the run-up to a meeting this month it has asked college and university to answer some key questions on the merger and FE guarantees.

"At the moment there is pound;20 million of LSC business in Bradford college," says Gary Rae, executive manager of the learning and skills council. "So we need to ensure the FE provision is protected at quite low levels of qualification."

The lecturers' union Natfhe is also cautious. It wants guarantees against job losses to protect conditions of employment. For instance, lecturers at the college and university have different conditions of service.

There are deeper issues. While accepting this is an exciting venture with much potential, Andy Pike, Natfhe national official for HE, said it will also be a test of how well an FE college can adapt.

"The test is the clash of cultures between further and higher education and the extent to which they can be provided within the same institution," he says.

"That's going to be a tremendous problem because both institutions are really geared up to provide services to their own constituency."

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