An independent review of the planned merger of the three Glasgow city centre colleges has said the move is not based on "robust evidence" or reliable demographic data and did not involve a proper consultation.
This assessment, revealed in responses to the consultation on the merger published by the Scottish Government on Tuesday, will add to pressures on Education Secretary Michael Russell as he prepares to decide whether to combine the three colleges, Metropolitan, Central and Nautical Studies, into the City of Glasgow College.
Mr Russell has postponed his approval of the plan, which had been expected on August 1, "to enable full and proper consideration of the complex proposal".
His evaluation of the case for a merger is unlikely to result in outright rejection at this late stage of what has been a protracted process. But it may set conditions such as a reduction in the pound;300 million price tag, the involvement of Stow College which pulled out of the merger talks arguing that there was "no compelling case", and agreement on terms and conditions for staff.
If Mr Russell rejects the current proposals, it would mean shunning the advice of the Scottish Funding Council and the strong backing of the National Union of Students. But it would be welcomed by the two unions involved, the Educational Institute of Scotland and Unison.
The latest review has been commissioned by Stow, and so may be seen as tainted. But the college insists that it is an independent study, carried out by O'Herlihy Management Consultants.
The review accuses the SFC of not providing "sufficient and robust evidence" to support the case for merger and, since it does not cite the evidence, "it fails a test of transparency". It also criticises the council for assuming the role of a curriculum planning body in justifying the merger on the grounds that there is too much overlap and duplication of courses in the existing colleges.
The consultants question "inappropriate demographic data which may lead to false or misleading conclusions," and they challenge the consultation process for having omitted key stakeholders and given "undue weight to some views at the expense of more widely-held positions".
The report then states: "There is no real evidence put forward on the financial benefits that will be derived through the investment or how the proposals will improve the learning and teaching experience for the students."
By contrast, the drive to create a new institution in Glasgow city centre, led by principal-designate Paul Little, has been justified on exactly those educational, financial and economic grounds. It is strongly supported by the leaderships of Glasgow City Council, neighbouring Strathclyde University and Scotland's Colleges.
Any dilution of the plans will undoubtedly draw the ire of Glasgow councillors, who have already bristled over the decision by "Edinburgh ministers" to withdraw capital investment from the proposed Glasgow Airport Rail Link.
The NUS in Scotland is among the strongest backers of a merger, which will create Scotland's largest college with up to 60,000 students. "It represents a huge opportunity to create a world-leading student experience and an integral part of Scotland's lifelong learning landscape," the union states.
The strongest condemnation has come from Unison, which represents non- academic staff in the colleges. It says there has been "no meaningful consultation" or agreement on its members' terms and conditions.
The union points out that it is still haggling over staff working hours, five years after the colleges of food technology and building and printing formed Glasgow Metropolitan. "Unison members have no confidence that this merger will be any different," it states.
Both Unison and the EIS fear the price of the merger will be paid for by the jobs of their members. The funding council has set aside pound;4.3 million to support the costs of redundancies, but the colleges say these would be sought on a voluntary basis.
PROS AND CONS
"The proposed investment is considerable and we welcome the scale of the ambition to enhance the learner experience."
"Should we be spending hundreds of millions in a recession?"
"It is good for the public purse in that it will allow resources, services and expertise to be shared."
"One significant factor will be the ability of the new college to offer more flexibility in terms of curricula."
"I feel that students benefit from the current choice of colleges."
". a positive development for Glasgow and Scotland."
"Staff are being railroaded towards this merger."
"The merger is a mess . All the power resides with the smallest college and the least experienced management team".
Source: Scottish Government summary of responses to the consultation on the proposed merger of three Glasgow colleges.
Neil Munro email@example.com.