Merger in Glasgow stirs up a storm

A proposed merger of two Glasgow colleges is being bitterly opposed by city rivals and will almost certainly challenge revised Scottish Office guidance on avoiding "intense competition" between colleges.

Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, in late June told colleges to end cut-throat competitio n and two weeks later announced his intention to allow the merger of Glasgow College of Building and Printing and Glasgow College of Food Technology. The merger could be the first of several in the west of Scotland.

The college would be renamed the City of Glasgow College and would attempt to widen access and student choice, cut costs and improve student facilities and staff training.

The Scottish Office consultation period ended on Monday but there is growing opposition to the plans. Mr Wilson is under pressure to at least delay any merger until the Government produces an overall strategy for further education in Scotland or until a Scottish parliament meets.

Peter Duncan, principal of Central College, and close neighbour of the two proposed merging colleges, described the plans as "premature, piecemeal and inappropriate at this stage".

Mr Duncan said claims to widen educational opportunities were not sustainable because of the curriculum differences between the two colleges and probably meant expansion into other curriculum areas covered by sister colleges. "We were discussing the situation in the city centre of Glasgow with five other colleges but these two did not want to collaborate," he said.

Mr Duncan maintained that all colleges in the west of Scotland and the rest of the country would be affected by the changes. The merged college had aspirations to move into communities in the periphery of the city which were already catered for by the five community colleges. "This seems to me to be a hangover of competition with sister colleges," Mr Duncan said.

He is also strongly against the proposed college name.

Ian Graham, principal of John Wheatley College, which serves the east end of the city, shares his broad concerns and the particular anxiety about the renaming. "There are currently 10 colleges serving the needs of the city of Glasgow and beyond and all, or many of these, could lay claim to the title of the City of Glasgow College, " he points out.

Mr Graham argues that no proper appraisal of the full range of options has been carried out, including the continuation of current arrangements. The merger did not seem to include an assessment on the impact on other colleges. His official submission concludes: "The college would contend that the lack of such rigorous procedures must now compromise any due diligence study which the Scottish Office will presumably now wish to make of the proposal."

Mr Graham contends wider access is not necessarily achieved or improved by the merger of colleges and that there is little real argument for curriculum cohesion or coherence between the two colleges. He adds: "The opportunities for genuine and open academic progression for students is, in no way, enhanced by the proposals, indeed the existing associate status of Glasgow Caledonian University of both institutions may be very unhealthy in this respect."

The economic and financial case for the merger is not well made and mergers do not always yield economies of scale, he points out.

Among a raft of criticisms, Mr Graham fears "a predatory institution" may "seriously damage" post-school provision and the related infrastructure in Glasgow, especially in the outlying housing schemes. He wants assurances that if the merger does proceed, the new college will not indulge in "mission drift", either in the curriculum or geographically.

Anniesland College is less opposed in principle to the merger, according to Brian Hughes, depute principal, but remains concerned about the size of the college and its impact in the city. "The biggest danger is that they're talking about moving into community areas. That would sit at odds with its existence at the moment," he says.

Ros Micklem, principal of Cardonald College, believes "the rationale is very thin" and wants an overall plan for further education in Glasgow in place before any merger is ratified. "There is not a lot of evidence that merged colleges do achieve economies. A convincing case has not been made.If the Government is serious about avoiding wasteful and unnecessary competition, I would want to see how it is going to implement this in practice," she says.

Alastair Tyre, Langside principal, is not opposed to the merger but is against the new name and any additional resources being channelled into the merger.

Tom Wilson, principal of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing and architect of the merger, dismissed his critics: "There are no reasons why it should not go ahead. We are not threatening other people." There was nothing in the consultation document that suggested any encroachment into other colleges' work or territory. "That's not the intention," he said.

Mr Wilson said the two colleges had been discussing merger for the past two years with the Scottish Office and it was not fair to 700 staff and 10,000 students to delay much longer. Merger would benefit students.

"This is the first merger post-incorporation and obviously it's likely to attract more attention than others," Mr Wilson stated. He was well aware of recent ministerial statements about the need for collaboration and less competition.

Mr Wilson accepted there would not be large savings resulting from the merger. "We say cost savings will not be enormous but the exercise is not about saving money. It's recognising that a broad-based institution is better for students. We need to run a new organisation within a slightly reduced cost envelope. We can do better for the students if you look at the library and learning resources," he said.

Mr Wilson did not think the controversial proposed name was inappropriate.They needed a new name that reflected the college's place in the city centre. "To call it the Glasgow College of Food Technology, Building and Printing would give quite the wrong message, " he said.

Meanwhile, the city council has approved the merger but called for a rethink on the name. "The name could be seen as too general and not reflecting the desirable specialist nature of the two colleges. It is hoped that the general nature of the name would not presage a move to a more general curriculum at the expense of the current specialisms which are of value to the city," it cautions.

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