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Frictionmars merger day

The creation of the long-awaited single voice for further education will be decided today.

But as D-day dawns, the planned partnership, fraught with well-publicised divisions, faces fresh strains. The Colleges' Employers' Forum and the Association for Colleges are at loggerheads over when and how sixth-form colleges should be brought into the new organisation.

In the run-up to merger, tension has mounted over the spending of both sides. Each has been accused of profligacy, with the CEF accused of excessive spending on staff expenses such as hospitality and travel and the AFC under fire for its in-house newspaper's losses.

The sixth-form colleges association, APVIC, which now wants to join the merged association after initially vowing to stay separate, has set down a list of demands to be met if it comes on board.

The list includes reduced subscriptions for its members - a concession opposed by the CEF, which is stalling over the sixth-form colleges' membership. The AFC, which has more support than the CEF in sixth form colleges, wants to bring them in rapidly.

The issue of subscription fees is also likely to be hotly debated at today's emergency meetings of the AFC and CEF in London.

In consultations on the merger, colleges warned against a steep rise in fees. Those belonging to both organisations expect to save by paying only one subscription. Those belonging to just one will not countenance a substantial increase.

As each member organisation was today asked to approve the merger proposals, both sides were critical of the other's housekeeping. Accountants' reports leaked to The TES reveal CEF's meeting expenses - including travel, hotels, entertaining and meeting costs - totalled Pounds 162,000 in the 16 months up to July 1994, almost Pounds 236,000 the next year and Pounds 46,000 in the six months to last January.

Accountants Baker Tilly found the organisation had made what amounts to a 60 per cent cut since last July by reducing the cash spent on taxis and hotels. It had also stopped all but "key members of staff" travelling first class.

The "new system of cost control" would have to be rigorously enforced if CEF was to meet its target for reducing expenses, accountants said.

Despite the cut, AFC members cite the totals as evidence of CEF excess, and particularly of extravagance on the part of chief executive Roger Ward - one of only two declared contenders for the leadership of the new associations, together with his AFC counterpart Ruth Gee.

The AFC, meanwhile, despite a healthy balance sheet, is accused by the CEF of overspending on its publication FE Now!. The magazine made a loss of Pounds 87,000 in 1995.

It emerged this week that the new association, provisionally called the Association of British Colleges, will have to find a new name because Scottish colleges - which have their own representative body - have objected to the use of the word British.

With the merger set for approval today, all eyes will now turn to the race for the leadership. Keith Scribbins, CEF chairman, has opted not to stand for the new board, leaving his way clear to run for the chief executive's post. He is understood to have pledged not to oppose Roger Ward directly, but could stand if the two present chief executives are both rejected by the new board.

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