A giant stirs in the city streets

4th February 2005 at 00:00
As from last Saturday, Scotland has 45 further education colleges instead of 46. Glasgow Metropolitan College is now officially the successor to the College of Building and Printing and the College of Food Technology in the city - the first FE merger since incorporation in 1992.

The formal ceremony to open the new giant, which will have an annual turnover of pound;22 million and an enrolment of 20,000 students, will be performed on Monday by Jim Wallace, Lifelong Learning Minister.

As a "pioneer" in the sector, Tom Wilson, the 61-year-old who headed the College of Building and Printing and is principal of the new college, has inevitably seen a number of colleagues from other colleges beating a path to his door to see how it should be done.

The process has gone remarkably smoothly, given the inevit`able tensions which surround such moves. It helped that the staff were given assurances of no redundancies. "That would have been a particularly sour note on which to start, particularly as there was no history of merger in post-incorporation FE," Professor Wilson says.

There is likely to be natural wastage over the next three to four years, however, and some reduction among support staff. "We will handle that with care," the principal says. The expectation is that the merged college will ultimately save around pound;500,000 a year.

The colleges' management met the unions on a weekly basis initially and then fortnightly in preparing for the merger. A key move in involving the staff, Professor Wilson believes, was the decision to appoint 12 "communications facilitators" from the staffs of the two colleges.

"These were not management lackeys in any way and we put them through some training by outside consultants," he comments. "Their job was to bring to the surface any concerns that people might have." It was also done very publicly through the intranet.

Among the questions to be fielded was whether this was a takeover or a merger. "We were able to demonstrate, for instance, that the new board has equal numbers from each college, despite the fact that the College of Building and Printing is twice the size of the College of Food Technology," Professor Wilson points out.

The shake-out at the top has been judicious. Donald Leitch, former principal of the CFT, is one of three vice-principals, responsible for corporate development. The board will be chaired by Peter Finch, who held that position at the College of Building and Printing, and the vice-chair is Brian Curle from the GCFT board. The process, Professor Wilson says, was "utterly uncontentious".

Colleagues from other colleges expressed surprise at the amount of detailed work that had to go into the submission to the minister. A major issue was the amount of management time that had to be devoted to making the merger happen.

The two colleges had a head start, however, in that they had been here before, working on merger plans which eventually failed to win ministerial approval from the former Scottish Office.

While that early case for merger was found to have been proven academically and financially, it was thrown out on strategic grounds - in essence, other colleges did not like it. "The lesson we learnt from that experience was that we needed to take time to reassure others that we were not trying to take over the world," Professor Wilson states. "So we prepared the ground much more carefully this time, particularly in discussion with college principals and the unions."

The two colleges also had the `experience of the abortive talks which involved Glasgow Central College of Commerce. Although it pulled out, Professor Wilson envisages that "at some point, we will have one merged college on Cathedral Street" - the thoroughfare which is home to the two colleges as well as Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities.

Meanwhile, the plan is to have one campus for Glasgow Metropolitan College with perhaps two or three buildings. But Professor Wilson says "a huge amount of work" remains to be done before the first sod is cut, three years from now, on what would be a pound;40 million enterprise.

Professor Wilson hopes one clear outcome from the merger will be better facilities for students, such as longer library opening hours and better mental health support. The new college will also be exploring what it can share with the universities, including library, sport and leisure facilities. It will have a pound;1.6 million grant from the FE funding council over three years to assist the merger.

Professor Wilson believes the end result will be that the college will be able to "raise its game educationally". He envisages a major boost for staff development, a major equipment investment programme at pound;2 million a year initially and effective dialogue with the college's main clients in the building and hospitality sectors.

Glasgow Metropolitan believes the future is rosy, given that these are industries which are growing in importance. Professor Wilson also points out that there are synergies between the client groups of the former colleges, such as construction and the hotel industry and photography and cuisine, and he is keen to ensure the college continues to work closely with employers in these areas.

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