THE Lifelong Learning Minister has urged the three Glasgow city centre colleges to get back round the negotiating table and reach agreement on a merger.
In his first speech as minister, Jim Wallace told the annual conference of the Association of Scottish Colleges: "I have to say that the quite sudden ending of discussions on the Cathedral Street merger - at such an advanced stage in the process, and so long after the prospect of a merger was first mooted - came as something of a surprise to me."
Mr Wallace hoped there might still be scope to remove the remaining obstacles "with added vigour", to seize the prize which he pointed out all three colleges signed up to seven years ago.
College staff have written to him expressing their anxiety over the uncertainty. "I can understand that concern," he said.
Talks collapsed after what appeared to be an eleventh hour decision by the board of Glasgow Central College of Commerce to oppose a merger which had been agreed by the College of Building and Printing and the College of Food Technology.
Central College denies the decision was sudden, as Mr Wallace suggested, and it is understood the board did not believe there was a good business case for a merged institution. It also argued that a merger would not add value to what was already a viable college and the staff were opposed to it.
But the college's decision was heavily criticised privately by the other colleges and publicly by the Educational Institute of Scotland which accused it of blowing pound;1 million of taxpayers' money in three years of wasted discussions. But Central says its commitment amounted to just pound;9,000.
The EIS's College Lecturers' Association claims the talks had been partly derailed by a clash between Tom Wilson, the College of Building and Printing principal, and Peter Duncan, the Central College of Commerce principal, over who should head the merged institution.
Some observers have privately criticised the early decision to appoint Mr Wilson the leading principal to manage the talks, rather than an outside figure.
Geoffrey Johnston, chairman of the board at Central College, acknowledged that talks would have to continue in some form.
Speaking to The TES Scotland after Mr Wallace's speech, Esther Roberton, chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, said it would press Glasgow colleges to continue talking on the future shape of FE in the city, whether in the form of mergers or in other kinds of association. This process has already got under way with tentative discussions involving the three Cathedral Street colleges and the other city centre institutions, Stow and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.
The funding council has pledged to give Glasgow priority for investment - but this is dependent on the number of colleges being reduced from 10.
In his speech, Mr Wallace hinted that future funding levels could also depend on a more streamlined system with fewer colleges. "The resources we make available for FE are hard won in the face of other very compelling priorities of the Scottish Executive," he said. "Our task in delivering the maximum return for students is to be scrupulous, innovative and tenacious.
"We need to show we can grasp and deliver change, and do so within challenging time-scales."
He called on colleges across Scotland to pursue "optimum alignment", backed by "the strongest possible sense of common purpose".
For the first time in many years a minister did not make any announcement at an ASC conference about an additional pot of money for colleges. Instead Mr Wallace was forced to acknowledge that the next academic year would be "relatively tight" financially, although the decision to end-load funding increases on to the second and third years of the Executive's public spending review would mean cash rises of 8.6 per cent and 8.2 per cent respectively.
He praised colleges for making "significant strides" towards eradicating deficits and acknowledged this had not been easy given "the unrelenting demands which the skills and inclusion agendas continue to place on colleges".