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Merger talks collapse

Sunnier outlook for funding persuades Barony board to opt for countryside niche

The first attempt to merge two Scottish further education colleges since the failure of a move in Glasgow three years ago has collapsed.

Talks had been taking place since last August between the Barony College outside Dumfries and Dumfries and Galloway College, following the retirement of David Rose, Barony's principal, and the arrival of Tony Jakimciv as new principal of the neighbouring institution.

But the board of the Barony, which made the original approach, has now decided to go it alone. It is thought the more favourable funding climate, following increased Government investment, persuaded the board that there was a viable future as a niche college specialising in rural-based courses.

Mr Jakimciv said he was "not surprised at the decision of the Barony board since what we had been doing was looking at the potential for merger in a genuinely open and exploratory manner".

He said the Dumfries and Galloway board had acknowledged there was "potential for a merger but we were not actively seeking one".

Russel Marchant, principal of the Barony, had publicly declared his scepticism about the automatic claims often made for the merits of mergers in a report last year co-authored with fellow principals Joe Mooney of Reid Kerr College in Paisley and Craig Thomson of Glenrothes College. The report suggested that closer collaboration between colleges could be more fruitful and stated: "Placing undue emphasis on merger has the potential to impoverish the debate and to inhibit joint activity."

A combined college serving Dumfries-shire would havebrought together 10,000 students in an institution with a budget of more than pound;11 million.

Although the Scottish Executive and the FE Funding Council support mergers in principle, they are also under a legal obligation to ensure that FE provision is "adequate" as well as "efficient" and that student access is not put at risk.

The official but private view is that the greatest scope for mergers is in the cities. This effectively means slimming down the 10 colleges in Glasgow, which has another nine outside its boundaries. Aberdeen and Dundee have only one FE college each and Edinburgh just three.

The funding council is undertaking a review of the FE scene in Glasgow, due to be completed next month. Part of the intention is to ensure colleges are in the right place and are efficiently organised before the council commits further investment to the city. It was ironically in Glasgow that the first serious attempt to merge two colleges came to grief in 1998 when Brian Wilson, the then Education Minister, rejected plans for a hitch-up between the College of Food Technology and the College of Building and Printing.

The move would have had unacceptable knock-on effects on other local colleges, Mr Wilson said at the time. But he made it clear his decision reflected purely the merits of that case and the Government's door remained open to proposals for merger.

Since then varying degrees of collaboration have been pursued, most notably in the Glasgow Colleges Group and the college-based University of the Highlands and Islands project.

Supporting vulnerable students: one Edinburgh college's approach ScotlandPlus pages 2-3

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