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Opinion: all the single colleges, now put your hands up

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Whenever I think about college mergers, I find myself humming a pertinent Beyoncé song, 1+1, which includes a poetic summary of the traditional argument for collaboration:

“If I ain’t got nothing, I got you

If I ain’t got something, I don’t give a damn, cause I got it with you

I don’t know much about algebra, but I know one plus one equals two

And it’s me and you, that’s all we’ll have when the world is through”

That she refers so overtly to the maths challenge we’re all grappling with surely confirms to all that Ms Knowles-Carter was thinking about the FE sector when she penned this particular volume of her oeuvre.

The traditional argument, deeply embedded in the government’s rationale for area reviews, is that mergers generate a set of distinct benefits that will enable the combined institution to survive, improve and thrive – even in tough times.

First and foremost, it is argued that the stronger of the institutions will leverage its expertise in leadership, management, teaching and learning to improve performance in the weaker. Where an “outstanding” college merges with one that “requires improvement”, the hope is that the combined institution will rise to the higher level. But recent history – in both FE and the commercial world – includes at least as many examples of mergers creating a drag effect, rather than a booster one.

Second, and importantly in an era of austerity, it is argued that combining institutions will generate efficiencies. While it is absolutely the case that mergers should lead to savings, they will almost certainly prove difficult to glean – and will likely fall short of the level conceived at the outset.

Third, there are the efficiencies associated with the “consolidation” of the senior management team, including the gracious exit of a duplicate principal, finance director and others. Each collaboration will be different in terms of quite how this particular vignette unfolds.

A fourth benefit may occur where nearby institutions are able to share curriculum management and teaching expertise. It may even be possible to consolidate whole campuses.

Notwithstanding my obvious respect for Beyoncé’s work, I think that she is missing some really important nuances in this “one plus one equals two” argument. The risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial. Any collaboration should deliver cost savings; but they are unlikely to represent a view that is worth the climb. I would argue that only a collaboration that is materially additive to our commercial aspirations will in fact foster long-term viability.

There are a number of different ways in which a combined institution might be better placed to meet employer demand and generate commercial surpluses. A merger could, for example, create an institution with a geographic footprint closer to that used to let relevant commercial contracts.

It could likewise create a network of infrastructure and resources that enables the combined institution to take a different delivery proposition to employers. Many of the commercial organisations with whom we compete for apprenticeship contracts carefully locate their delivery centres to meet the needs of their target clients. Combining and aligning the college estate can deliver the same.

A merger could also create the scale that makes an institution a credible bidder for the national contracts that will likely arise as the apprenticeship market settles. All of the above is really about saying that mergers enabling one plus one to equal three will be transformative.

Matt Hamnett is principal of North Hertfordshire College @matt_hamnett

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