The chairman of Clackmannan College has protested to Brian Wilson, the Scottish Education Minister, that a new FE centre in Stirling could put the Alloa-based college at risk in what amounts to a misuse of public funds.
Jim Thomson believes that the Pounds 3.3 million Stirling Centre for Further Education, initiated under the previous government as Scotland's first privately financed education project, does not square with Mr Wilson's intention to reduce competition between colleges.
Falkirk College, which manages the Stirling Centre, says it is keen to pursue merger talks with Clackmannan. The issue highlights once again colleges' demand for a clear indication from the new Scottish Office administration of its strategy for FE, which the Education Minister promised last June.
The Stirling Centre, which took in its first students a fortnight ago, is rented from the private sector for a 25-year period. It was originally a joint project involving Falkirk and Clackmannan but Clackmannan pulled out in 1996 over costs and said it feared three colleges would be competing for the same pool of students. The Stirling Centre hopes to provide up to 450 places.
Mr Thomson believes these reservations about student "displacement" have not been allayed. He told The TES Scotland: "We now have the very strange situation that the Scottish Office is using public funds to subsidise a direct competitor with Clackmannan College by giving them free accommodation and free provision for three years. That is a pretty good deal in anybody's language."
Falkirk confirmed that the Scottish Office is providing Pounds 2.3 million in transitional support for the Stirling operation during its first three years. Together with a gift of the land in the Springkerse area of Stirling and Pounds 250,000 from Forth Valley Enterprise, the total cost could come to well over Pounds 6 million.
But Falkirk denies it is getting a free ride, pointing out that it has to make a Pounds 100,000 contribution to the start-up costs in the second year and Pounds 200,000 in the third year.
Clackmannan is also concerned about duplication of courses, a factor in Mr Wilson's recent rejection of the planned merger between Glasgow College of Building and Printing and Glasgow College of Food Technology. Following that decision, the Association of Scottish Colleges called on Mr Wilson to reveal his strategic thinking and state his view on "what the optimum size or configuration of colleges should be in the future".
Allan French, Falkirk's assistant principal, admitted recently that there will be an overlap between Clackmannan and the Stirling Centre. But, speaking to Stirling's education committee, he said the only duplication at present was in flower-arranging and computing.
"Allan has not been well briefed," John Taylor, Clackmannan's principal, replied. "A very considerable number of courses are similar, even if they do not all have the same title. Indeed the courses offered by the Stirling Centre in business studies, computing, health studies and child care are provided by Falkirk as well as ourselves. There is no doubt the effect of the Stirling operation is to increase competition for FE students in the Forth Valley. "
Clackmannan feels particularly vulnerable because almost a third of its 4,000 students are from the Stirling area. The college is also under exclusive contract to Stirling Council to run evening and community education classes. Of 124 such classes, a "substantial proportion" are in the Stirling area.
The Scottish Office rejected an approach in December from Clackmannan which suggested that it would re-enter the partnership provided it received financial support. The Scottish Office ruled that the board was too late to change the terms of the deal, particularly if it diluted the agreed private sector control and the commercial risk which the private operator has to bear under privately funded projects in the public sector.
Mr French said Clackmannan had approached the Falkirk board but it insisted that three conditions had to be satisfied and these were rejected by Falkirk.
This was confirmed by Mr Taylor. His board sought assurances that any deal would not infringe Clackmannan's autonomy nor be used as a stalking horse for a takeover by Falkirk, that there would be minimal displacement of students and that the project was affordable.
In a statement to The TES Scotland, Graham Clark, Falkirk's principal, says his board believes the solution is to rationalise provision in central Scotland to avoid "unnecessary competition and duplication of courses". But it remains "committed to the principle of seeking closer association - for example by merger or federation - with Clackmannan College".
Meanwhile the two colleges would collaborate and, according to Mr French, the Stirling Centre would bring "a wide-ranging and appropriate flexible curriculum in a high technology learning centre" to the largest urban area in Scotland without an FE college.
* Clackmannan has become the latest FE college to link up with Napier University. Students satisfactorily completing higher national diplomas and certificates will be able to move on to Napier degree courses.