A 5,000-student campus in Brian Wilson's constituency may lead its rivals into a pre-emptive merger, reports Neil Munro
Kilmarnock and Ayr Colleges have been driven together by the threat from the new FE centre being established at Kilwinning by James Watt College.
At the recent Scottish Grand Committee debate on further and higher education, Des Browne, Labour MP for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, revealed that the two colleges were moving to "an early merger into a single college".
The boards of management at Ayr and Kilmarnock have not yet taken any formal decision, but the two boards have already set up a joint subcommittee "to work together for the good of Ayrshire", as Tom Farrell, a member of the Ayr College board, put it.
Talk of merger will be music to the ears of another Ayrshire MP - Brian Wilson, the Education Minister. Mr Wilson told The TES Scotland last month that FE in Ayrshire was "ripe for rationalisation". He has been waiting for merger candidates since he declared the policy of "needless competition" dead last June and unveiled its offspring - collaboration. Fewer colleges, he says, would create "a more financially robust further education sector".
Ironically, Mr Wilson's early decisions have taken the sector in the opposite direction. He has approved colleges on Benbecula and in Kilwinning to plug local gaps, and rejected the proposed Glasgow merger of the College of Food Technology and the College of Building and Printing.
Rationalisation of provision in Glasgow was still desirable but not at the expense of "unwelcome duplication" with what other colleges in the city offered, he said.
Meanwhile the pound;7 million Kilwinning venture in Mr Wilson's own Cunninghame North constituency, which James Watt College hopes to build with private capital and European funding, may produce the competitive results he deplores when it opens in August 2000. Mr Browne told MPs that the 5,000-student campus could drain students from Kilmarnock College, leading to the possible loss of 24 teaching posts and 14 support staff.
A working group involving the three colleges and the Scottish Office has been trying to hammer out study programmes for Kilwinning which would fulfil the minister's wish that there should be agreement "over the scale and curriculum with a view to securing complementarity of provision".
Mr Wilson said he would expect "the displacement effects of the new college on existing providers to be carefully assessed and minimised so that provision in neighbouring areas would not be adversely affected".
But Ayr and Kilmarnock have decided to act early to ensure they are not disadvantaged and are to set up a new centre of engineering excellence in Ayrshire and begin joint management training. Mr Wilson commented: "If Kilmarnock and Ayr had done this two or three years ago, we might be in a different situation. We have been through all that, and there is no intention of revisiting the proposals for North Ayrshire College."