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No reason not to tie the knot

Mergers are controversial, but desirable Rae Angus of Aberdeen College told fellow principals recently. This is an edited version of Rae Angus's address to the Association of Scottish Colleges' conference

Further education in Scotland - and the people it serves - would gain from rationalisation, and from a cut in college numbers. Such a cut, of course, is not synonymous with a reduction in the places and students. It is possible to have fewer colleges and more places and people served.

Of course, mergers are not panaceas. In the short-term they probably exacerbate difficulties, rather than resolve them. The pain comes before the gain. I am not a proponent of merger for the sake of it. Some are viable, others are not.

But, before addressing the issues of mergers, let me turn first to small associations and federations of colleges. In some cases, these may be better than nothing, and - being a member of one - I can appreciate that combinations of colleges do offer important benefits when the participants are clear about their aims and act to good effect. Some are intermediate stages on the road to full merger, others are not.

Like the status quo and the merger, federations and associations are neither good nor bad for it per se. Whether they are good or bad depends upon the circumstances, and how affairs are handled by people like us.

Some federations are substitutes for merger; other precursors; yet others are associations of colleges which cannot merge, because they are not near each other. Scotland's Polytechnic Colleges Group falls into this last category.

In an association, purpose is all. Even when some loose associations do offer benefits, the gains can sometimes be artificially limited. Why have half a cake, when the whole one is there for the eating? Put another way, where there is a small association, if the colleges have proved that they can work closely together, why have separate managements and administrations when one would suffice, and the money spent on employer and student clients? Does not a successful association prove a case for merger, rather than the opposite?

However, even where a merger is possible, it may not be desirable. It is only too easy to write off merger as too risky. To many people, mergers are a good idea - but best carried out somewhere else. Some of us will avoid considering merging their college with another like the plague. It's no accident that many colleges speak more to sister colleges many miles distant, while having little or no dialogue with the one down the road.

I will ignore the defensive self-interest of people like us, who might lose position or status as a result of a merger. None of us principals would act for ourselves alone, we are much too altruistic.

But a number of objections have to be answered. Perhaps the most common asserts that separate colleges strengthen local control which is a "good thing". However, this is plausible but fallacious reasoning.

The mere existence of a small to medium-size college does not ensure effective local control or accountability. Nor need the formation of larger colleges by way of merger, necessarily entail the loss of local control.

Merged colleges can develop managerial and governance structures and processes which actually improve local control and accountability. In any case, local control and accountability are not a function of size. They are a function of governance structures and processes, and the extent to which local interest groups, and their representatives, participate in the governance and the life of their college. Where participation is low, control is often weak - whatever the size and history of the college, or the number of sites it occupies.

Another reason often given in favour of the status quo is the need to maintain a college's distinctiveness. Often people agree with this view almost as an act of faith, without really delving into what the words mean. There is nothing praiseworthy in distinctiveness for the sake of it.

Colleges can be distinctively wrong - they may serve their communities poorly and ineffectively, with or without mergers. Colleges will also talk about their distinctive missions. But, whatever words are used, colleges, with a few exceptions, tend to have a common mission, because they tend to meet much the same needs.

In any case, there is nothing to prevent a large college from meeting diverse needs and demands. After all, even the smallest college today meets a range of discrete and distinctive needs.

Distinctions can be applied to groups of colleges. We may even try to establish classes of distinction - calling ourselves "community colleges" or "polytechnic groups", and so on. While there are sound reasons for such associations, these do not negate the rationale for merger and the benefits which they can bring. Mergers and associations need not be alternatives: they can be complementary.

Trenchant opposition to mergers can disappear if other circumstances are propitious. It is possible that a merger of a few colleges might not be attractive, while a merger of the same colleges to form a university might well be.

The most likely stimulus to merger these days is lack of finance. Colleges often find their opposition dissolving in the face of financial difficulty. Where did their very real and practical objections to merger go? They cannot just have disappeared, simply because budgets have got tighter.

I do not want to present a detailed general case for mergers in our FE system, but I do want to mention at least two pressing issues in which mergers might figure. In both cases, the stimuli are financial. They are from either end of the spectrum of merger possibilities.

The first is concerned with our agricultural colleges; the second focuses on the wider Scottish FE system itself.

Two of our agricultural colleges are among the smallest in our system. The problems of managing a small college are many and pressing; agricultural colleges exemplify the challenges, and it is for this reason and no other than I make mention of them.

Take for example, the costs of incorporated status - such as management overhead costs, and the related costs of maintaining separate financial and other administrations. These costs bear particularly heavily on the smaller colleges. Like the rest of Scotland's colleges, they also face challenging budgetary constraints.

If our agricultural colleges felt the need to merge, they would have two options. They could combine on the Scottish Agricultural College model which would mean Scotland having a single independent agricultural college with a single management structure and local branches. The branches would, essentially, be the existing independent FE agricultural colleges.

If there were a desire to merge, then there are obvious advantages in having a much larger single college specialising in agriculture and rural and recreation studies. But it might be difficult to maintain local control, distinctiveness and responsiveness.

The other alternative is for individual agricultural colleges to merge with other FE colleges to form, perhaps, a true polytechnic college? Aberdeen College is one, having been formed by the merger of a mono-tech, a college of commerce, and an agricultural college.

Turning to the wider, systemic issues there are, potentially, major benefits to be had. These derive from savings which would accrue to the system, not just the colleges involved.

So, all colleges have a vested interest in future mergers because all stand to gain from the general release of cash through efficiency measures such as rationalisation. This is important as we cannot look for massive increases in real funding per student after the next election, whichever party wins.

Financial benefits arise from two sources. The first is at the macro-level and result from cross-sector rationalisation. Reducing the number of Scottish FE colleges - while maintaining or increasing local services - offers us savings. These primarily derive from economies of scale and a reduction in management, premises and overhead costs; they could be available quickly. The second source of usable funds is the product of those savings which would accrue from post-merger rationalisation - chiefly from the elimination of waste and duplication, as merged colleges work more closely together.

There is, after all, no God-given requirement to have 43 colleges in Scotland. That is largely the product of historical accident and we need to look at how we provide a service at both national and local level.

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