The local learning and skills council says a full merger is the "favoured option" to maximise the cost-effectiveness of post-16 education in the county, sparking concerns about jobs at the colleges in Carlisle, Barrow-in-Furness, Kendal and Workington.
An LSC spokesperson said: "The council has discussed its vision with the four colleges and has now commissioned a feasibility study."
Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, warned: "The priority must be the protection of our members at these colleges. The LSC has to listen to all of the stakeholders."
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, said it would welcome the study on the condition that jobs be protected. Iain Owens, Natfhe's regional official, said: "The colleges in Cumbria have all had, or continue to have, severe financial problems. Many lecturers have lost their jobs and those that remain have no guarantees for the future. A merger must be worth exploring, but only if the views of staff are listened to."
Mick Farley, Cumbria LSC's executive director, said: "Were the status quo to continue, the colleges might be faced with the need to curtail the range of provision. That should not happen."
Graham Wilkinson, principal of Kendal College, which has 576 full-time and 3,300 part-time students, said: "Merger is a positive way forward and a sensible option for small rural colleges. I do not see any job losses at all. We are working flat-out with the staff we have."
Cumbria, England's second largest county, is mostly rural with almost half its land area covered by the Lake District National Park. But Barrow is heavily dependent on its shipyard and colleges play a vital role in providing skilled engineering workers. This mix of rural and industrial economies and the lack of transport links mean the college campuses are likely to survive, even if under a single principal.
The writing was on the wall for the colleges in November 2001, when Mr Farley expressed doubts about the colleges' viability as independent institutions.
He told FE Focus at the time: "They are all running their own management information systems and human resources systems and they don't have the resources that can sustain that."
Cumbria LSC has also been looking at bringing private training providers together in a way which, while still allowing them to compete, removes duplicated administration costs which must ultimately be met by the LSC.