Plan to protect London colleges

Consultants are to look at merging four institutions into one to avoid a 20 per cent funding cut. Joseph Lee reports

Adult education colleges could be merged into a super-institution to protect them against the effects of government cut-backs.

The Learning and Skills Council has brought in consultants to consider options for the future of the four dedicated adult education colleges in central London, including merging them.

It could also mean that the colleges would get special protection from changed funding priorities that would otherwise slash 20 per cent of their funding.

Philippa Langton, regional skills director of the central London LSC, said it had launched a review of the four colleges because they would be particularly affected by the change in funding priorities.

"Their whole mission, the reason they were set up, is different from what we and the Government deems priority learning," she said.

"In that spirit, we saw they would be quite badly hit. We needed to think through a strategy for their future - they are long established, good institutions.

"We want a grown-up conversation about how these institutions, which have been around a long time and which are much-loved by learners, can carry on a very successful role for London."

A list of options for the future seen by FE Focus suggests greater co-operation between City Lit, Morley College, the Mary Ward Centre and the Working Men's College to pool their resources and save on administration costs.

That could mean a federation of colleges, a full merger - creating a college with 50,000 students - or combining them with other FE colleges, or even universities.

The LSC paper outlining the options said it may consider exceptional protection of the funding for lower-priority adult education in these colleges if they show "a demonstrable willingness to change in response to changing times".

Giving special treatment to these four may cause resentment among some other colleges across the country, which have suffered cuts to courses and job losses, although it is not clear how long the protection would last.

Many of the colleges are believed to view a merger positively, although it is understood that smaller institutions are concerned about losing their identity.

Neil Fletcher, chairman of governors at City Lit, said: "We will be interested in what the consultants will say. The criteria that the proposals should be measured against shouldn't be protecting institutions.

Whatever happens should be what's best for learners in London.

"But, as the biggest provider of adult education in Europe, we should be leading, not following."

Ruth Silver, who was chair of governors at the 3,000-student Working Men's College, said they would also react positively to a merger.

"They're up for that. It's an adventurous group of governors and staff who know that the future means new challenges," she said.

But she warned that the review should not be preoccupied with structures, but should help to develop a broader 21st-century vision of adult education for the capital to replace the Victorian one of "doing good things for the poor".

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