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Stow pulls plug on merger talks

Neil Munro reports on the latest twists and turns in the saga to create a single city-centre college in Glasgow

Stow College believes it has done the three other Glasgow city-centre colleges a favour by pulling out of the Pounds 300 million plan to merge.

The college announced last week it was no longer prepared to be part of the New Campus Glasgow project. Bob McGrory, the principal, said: "I believe it will progress more positively as a smaller, more achievable project without the involvement of Stow College."

The Stow board claims that the development has changed so significantly from its original concept seven years ago as a co-location of the four colleges on two sites to a merged single institution that it cannot support it.

Since the Scottish Funding Council backs a single college, now only involving Glasgow Metropolitan, Central and Nautical Studies colleges, Stow has decided to halt parallel merger discussions it has been having with Glasgow Met.

In a briefing paper for the Stow board, a copy of which has been seen by The TESS, the funding council states that it no longer saw co-location as the way forward because it lacked "pace, coherence of vision and external credibility". A full merger would send "a clear signal of intent to the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council" and provide "a strong financial base from which to develop commercial activity".

The change in plans is particularly associated with John McClelland, SFC chair, and the arrival of Paul Little as principal of the Central College of Commerce. Both are enthusiasts for a single college.

A spokesperson for New Campus Glasgow said: "We are in contact with the Scottish Funding Council to arrange an early meeting to discuss how we go forward together."

But Stow is firmly opposed to a super-college catering for an estimated 50,000 learners. This compares with around 20,000 students at Glasgow University and some 34,000 at Aberdeen College, the largest in the FE sector.

John Mitchell, chair of the Stow board, said: "There has never been a college of this size in Scotland, and we have very serious reservations about its ability to meet the needs of learners. We think it will be too big to offer the personal learning experience colleges excel at."

Mr McGrory said: "There is no evidence which makes a compelling case for a merger. Research has shown that the learner ends up with less choice, it doesn't produce savings unless there are significant job losses and, in that situation, we've got to question whether spending Pounds 300 million is the best use of public money in a recession."

A question marks hangs over the cost of the project. Although the funding council agreed to commit Pounds 300 million to the project, it has a Pounds 50 million limit to spend on any one capital venture, so it would have to be referred to the Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary for approval. It is understood that the funding council is reconsidering the scale of its commitment. The original plan for a new, state-of-the-art campus has been scaled down to 70 per cent new build to prevent the cost soaring to Pounds 450 million.

Stow had initially planned to move to a new Pounds 25 million campus on the Clyde, which it abandoned after it was persuaded to enter the talks on the city-centre colleges. It has since refurbished its Cowcaddens buildings, and the SFC has told the college there is "no early prospect" of capital investment for Stow if it decides to go it alone.

The college's decision to walk away from the super-campus and from any link-up with Glasgow Met is the fourth time Stow has been involved in merger talks which have collapsed, confirming its reputation as the most reluctant suitor in Scottish FE. Earlier discussions with North Glasgow College and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies also broke down.

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