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Leaders clash in merger fight

Merger is likely to be at the top of the AFC conference agenda. Francis Beckett and Ian Nash report on the latest moves.

Hopes of a quick merger between the two main bodies representing colleges were set back this week after a row over membership broke out between the leading contenders in the power struggle.

Colleges' Employers' Forum chief executive Roger Ward stalled the merger bandwagon by claiming the Association for Colleges finances' may make it an unsuitable partner.

But his claims were dismissed as posturing by the AFC and Sir Bob Reid, chairman of the merger group, said it was up to the members - not the executive - to decide the organisations' future.

Mr Ward questioned the AFC's financial stability during merger talks between key players in the two organisations. He also claims to have evidence that many AFC colleges will leave the association when their membership is due for renewal early next year.

Mr Ward had argued: "You need with a merger to see assets and liabilities. Until we can see that we are talking to a financially-viable organisation, the progress of the talks will be slow. Not a lot will happen until we see how many are paying AFC in February 1996."

He claimed to have figures showing that the AFC is financially unhealthy but refused to disclose them at present.

But Ruth Gee, chief executive of the AFC, dismissed his claims as nonsense, insisting that the association had 349 member colleges - slightly more than the CEF.

"Our subscriptions are half those of the CEF, so of course we have less income," she said. "Colleges have given more resources to employment issues, and the AFC has been effective on a broad range of issues for half the cost."

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College and AFC chairman, regretted the merger hitch. He said: "I'm sure that any unnecessary delay in a process the sector wants would be a mistake."

He had thought that this belief was shared by all parties at the merger meeting. "But in the same week Roger Ward told another college principal that he was seeking to delay matters at least until February," said Mr Austin. "He appears to be saying different things on different occasions."

The merger is set to be a subject for fierce debate at the AFC conference in London next week.

Mr Ward broached the question of merger with Ruth Gee a year ago, offering her a sum - variously reported as being between Pounds 120,000 and Pounds 250, 000 - to stand down and leave him to lead a merged organisation. She turned it down. The AFC canvassed colleges on the merger eight months ago and got an overwhelming "yes" from more than 300 replies.

The AFC and CEF were formed when colleges left local authority control in 1993. It was felt then that two organisations were needed so that industrial relations - the CEF domain - could be kept separate from general strategic issues handled by the AFC. Many now believe that this was a mistake.

The CEF has already moved outside industrial relations into what the AFC calls its territory.

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