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A match not made in heaven

I LIKE TO think that getting married was my idea, with a little prompting from the woman concerned. I think I should have been a little surprised if the vicar had sent me a list of his stipulations, expectations, criteria and intended investigations before agreeing to let me tie the knot.

Looking back on the preparations for the happy event I didn't mind his advice and I didn't object to his polite enquiry about the precise nature of my religious convictions (six months in Borstal for absconding with the collection plate). After all, he was under direct instructions from God to promote unions of this sort, especially in cases of financial hardship, on the grounds that two can live as cheaply as one.

The Further Education Funding Council, bless its religious little heart, goes way beyond the vicar's approach. "A revised approach to considering merger proposals" (Circular 9819) landed on my desk the other day with all the gravity of an episcopal circular on the duties of the bride and bridegroom. Like the vicar, the FEFC is clearly under orders from on high to promote institutional mergers, and the document offers advice to those thinking of taking the first faltering steps toward wedded bliss.

At the heart of this touching document is advice to further education institutions thinking of shacking up with a university. This is clearly unthinkable. Commoners should not marry into the aristocracy and the advice is underscored by a letter from Labour's Baroness Blackheart. Any aristocrat contemplating bedding and wedding the serving wench should think twice. He would be cut off without a penny, stripped of his status and thrown onto the streets. Or, as the Baroness puts it: "In respect of higher education institutions involved in merger proposals with FE colleges, we should be concerned if mergers distract higher education institutions from their distinctive missionIWe should also wish to be satisfied that it would not be misleading for an institution in the higher education sector to use the title 'university' should it merge with a large FE college."

Presumably the worry is that the foolish aristocrat would spend some of his lavish unearned income on the wretch. This appears true even if the noble aristo is rescuing a fallen woman: "We would not wish mergers to be used as a means of rescuing a failing FE institution if this would mean the diversion of resources that the Secretary of State has allocated for higher education purposes." So throw the tart back in the gutter where she belongs.

Anyone thinking of getting hitched in this church should think hard about it, however. The banns have to be read at least a dozen times and any objectors should be listened to. What's more, the affianced couple will have to indicate precisely how their marriage will benefit not just themselves, but the whole community. You thought marriage was a personal affair, concerned primarily with meeting the needs of the individuals concerned? Think again. An FE marriage means you don't just have to put up with those awful relations at the wedding breakfast; you have to promise to love and honour them throughout your entire wedded life, or the vicar won't marry you. Even the local authority gets a promise of sympathetic consideration, which is a bit like promising to take the wicked uncle who abused you in childhood on honeymoon with you.

I particularly like the criterion which says you can't go ahead unless you can show the union is going to be successful. Whatever happened to that fine old English institution, divorce? Nobody bothers asking a young couple with stars in their eyes whether they think they'll still be together in 10 years' time. But, of course, in the FE world there is no divorce. It really is a case of til death us do part, though death for one of the partners often happens immediately after the ceremony. Beware the mantis model of merger!

Financially weak colleges, about three-quarters of the sector apparently, have a section reserved for them. Here the FEFC promises to be "more proactive". You can almost hear the cartridges being slid into the the shotgun as the bride's father prepares to make an honest woman of her, with anyone he finds who can bankroll her, presumably.

This is all of the greatest interest to me because I am in a close partnership with four colleges in Birmingham. Are we planning a mass wedding, a serial merger? Well, frankly, I am not the marrying kind. I prefer to carry on just as we are. Living in sin.

Graham Jones is principal of Sutton Coldfield College

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