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Mystery caller dials merger principal

The Derby HE-FE marriage is in trouble. Ian Nash and Lucy Ward report. Pioneering proposals for Derby University to merge with two neighbouring colleges have led to allegations of political string-pulling.

The consultation period for the scheme, which concluded this week, has been overshadowed by rumour concerning the intentions of a third further education college which declined to become involved in the multiple merger.

Dissent over the bid to merge Mackworth and High Peak colleges with the university has even led to anonymous late-night phone calls to one principal alleging the outcome is being manipulated to protect political interests in the run-up to a general election.

At the centre of the controversy is the formal response to the consultation by Derby Tertiary College, Wilmorton, which turned down invitations to join the merger earlier this year. The college is used to the limelight, having been rocked by a management scandal two years ago. This led to the resignation of the principal and the replacement of the governors with appointees chosen by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

In its merger response, Wilmorton outlines a number of reservations about the impact of the scheme on further education in Derby and suggests alternative scenarios should be considered, including a possible merger between itself and Mackworth.

Mackworth principal Alan Harrison is understood to have received a series of mystery phone calls giving early details of Wilmorton's submission and claiming ministers are anxious to protect a college run by governors hand-picked by Mrs Shephard and do not wish to see it left out in the cold. The future of Wilmorton in the event of the proposed Derby University merger is one of the issues the Further Education Funding Council will have to take into account when examining the scheme.

Wilmorton chairman Brian Coxon this week denied knowledge of anyone "playing politics", but said he understood feelings were running high on all sides since jobs could be at stake.

Mr Harrison acknowledged rumours were flying of political intervention but declined to comment on these. However, he attacked Wilmorton's call for a merger with another FE college to be examined, insisting Mackworth had already approached Wilmorton governors twice offering to open merger talks but had been turned down.

He said: "I find it absolutely astonishing that they claim we have not even explored that option. Having approached Wilmorton for a merger twice and been rejected, it is strange that they should now present it as an option. I am cynical and sceptical."

Mr Coxon said Mackworth had proposed merger talks very shortly after his appointment as chairman of Wilmorton corporation, but said he had asked for more time to take stock of the college's position.

Wilmorton retained an open mind on possibilities for FE in Derby, but had been anxious not to become deflected from regaining stability following its troubles. He said: "Our concern is to find the best solution for students in the city."

The three would-be merger partners will now draw up a formal proposal based on the results of their local consultation, which will then be submitted to the FEFC for consideration.

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