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Red faces as talks over merger fail

Despite government pressure, two colleges have rejected partnership, report Ngaio Crequer and Simon Midgley

MERGER TALKS between two colleges in Nottingham have collapsed, to the embarrassment of the Further Education Funding Council, which had been pressing both sides to combine.

The People's College and Broxtowe College opened talks last summer. David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has asked the funding council to be proactive in encouraging mergers, and this one was seen as a big test.

The two are in the shadow of the huge New College, Nottingham, itself the product of the merger of four institutions. The funding council was concerned about the ability of the two to remain viable with New College looming over them.

Mergers were put back on the agenda last autumn by David Melville, chief executive of the funding council, as a result of government pressure.

The collapse of the talks is bad news for him, and the timing will not help him in his bid to become chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council - deadline for applications today.

He has already slipped well down the list of possibles. Ministers are known to be unhappy with the way the council only belatedly said it would fully fund Curriculum 2000, the new flexible post-16 exams. They believe that this has meant the reforms have been seen in a negative light.

They are also irritated that the issue of the enforced closure of debt-ridden Bilston Community College in the West Midlands won't go away.

Ministers have been bombarded with complaints that the funding council misused its power in its handling of th case.

Finally they have been stung by remarks by Alan Duncan, Tory MP for Rutland and Melton, over the council's handling of the proposed merger between Leicestershire's Rutland College and Tresham, in Northamptonshire.

Mr Duncan said he had never seen "such a blatant case of bureaucratic bulldozing." He added, in a debate in the Commons, that the council had been "deceitful" and had misled ministers.

In Nottingham, the two colleges issued a joint statement saying that "after very careful consideration the board of the People's College, Nottingham, does not have sufficient confidence that a merger could be satisfactorily achieved within a reasonable timescale".

Lecturers at the People's College had become increasingly fearful that what was billed as a merger was in reality a takeover. However, managers at the college insist that the talks were conducted on a basis of equality.

One proposal to the FEFC, that nearly one-third of the joint institution's educational provision should be cut, alarmed lecturers at the People's College who feared huge job losses.

Broxtowe's vice-principal for corporate affairs, Christopher Weekes, said:

"There was a synergy about the merger, which is why there is a degree of disappointment. However, that does not mean to say that there is not some scope for us to work together collaboratively."

David Coats, clerk to the People's College's corporation, said the merger was just not achievable. "We have a new shadow Learning and Skills Council coming into being in the autumn and the FEFC's demise in April. There were time constraints."

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