An unusual, if not unique, attempt to find a middle way between outright merger and cut-throat rivalry is being pioneered by a cluster of Birmingham colleges.
As the age of no-holds-barred competition between colleges draws to a close, the idea is that the colleges will work together collaboratively to reap economies of scale, to rationalise the courses on offer and to develop partnership ventures.
Based on the United States community model, the intention is that the federation of up to seven colleges will offer education and training from pre-vocational to post graduate level.
Principals insist the venture is not about retrenchment and making staff redundant - though one idea is to set up a joint staff agency to supply colleges with cheaper part-time lecturing staff. They say it is rather about expansion, development and doing things jointly that could not be done individually.
Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, Josiah Mason Sixth-Form College, North Birmingham College, South Birmingham College and Sutton Coldfield College intend to band together to form a federation known as the Birmingham Community College.
The Joseph Chamberlain Sixth-Form College will also be joining the group, as will Cadbury College providing its college governors are amenable.
In one crucial respect the federated college will differ from its American cousins. The constituent colleges will continue to be funded individually by the Further Education Funding Council rather than being allocated funds from a central board of trustees.
Graham Jones, the principal of Sutton Coldfield College, says the post-incorporation years of competition had gone too far.
"We were getting to the point where there was duplication of provision - where the battle for students was becoming quite frankly wickedly wasteful in some cases."
The move towards collaborative strategic planning will signal a partial return to the days when colleges shared some services and acted co-operatively to meet local needs. It will not herald a U-turn back to all-embracing centralised planning and top-down local education authority direction.
"This is not about retrenchment," Mr Jones says. "This is about making sure of economies of scale and getting rid of overlaps, for example of marketing costs, by agreeing that we can now stop hitting each other over the head competitively, which is expensive, time-consuming and stress-making."
Economies of scale could be gained, for example from setting up a joint purchasing department. Given that the annual budget of the first five colleges is Pounds 65 million, this would give the community college some clout in negotiating better deals with suppliers. Estates management or consultancy could be bought in or shared jointly.
As soon as it is practicable it is hoped to link the colleges via an IT network which would also permit video conferencing. College staff could also share staff development programmes.
Mr Jones says that there are several areas of the city where two or three partner colleges could work together to widen participation and offer opportunities for lifelong learning.
One plan is to market the colleges collectively to show prospective students how they can progress more easily through the community college federation than at an individual college outside the network.
Where a course in any one institution is not viable, colleges should be able to pool resources and students. The community college could also offer an applications clearing house so that students applying to one institution would be referred on to another when the need arose.
As a multiple college institution, it will also be able to make joint bids to European institutions for development funding.
Mr Jones is unimpressed by the suggestion - mooted in some quarters - that Birmingham already has too many further education colleges. "We have not really begun to tap in to the vast numbers of people who have no formal educational or training qualifications," he says.
The community college will be incorporated as a company limited by guarantee. A legal constitution for the partnership will be drawn up. The college will have a board of trustees consisting of the individual college corporation's chairmen and principals and a senate to consider strategic academic planning.
The plan is to prepare a strategic plan by April and to launch the new federated entity in September.
The Department for Education and Employment has asked the Further Education Funding Council for examples of collaborative ventures short of mergers which it could promote as examples of good practice. Both the department and the FEFC will be viewing the progress of Birmingham Community College with interest.
At a reception to launch the venture in the House of Commons last month , Baroness Blackstone, minister of state for further and higher education, said she thought the proposed Birmingham Community College was an exciting development. It was, she added, an unusual model but none the worse for that.
More to the point, however, she has asked the colleges involved to provide her with a warts-and-all report on how the venture is progressing one year after the new institution comes into being.
WHO WANTS TO MERGE WITH WHOM
Mergers involving more than 60 colleges are being considered. Twenty-one have decided to go ahead.
The following colleges have formally notified the FEFC of their wish to merge:
1 Harrogate College and Leeds Metropolitan University.
2 Airedale and Wharfedale College and Park Lane College.
3 Dunstable College and the University of Hertfordshire.
4 Cambridge College of Agriculture and Horticulture and Norfolk College of Arts and Technology.
5 Clarendon College and Basford Hall College. (High Pavement Sixth Form College expects to join the merger next year)
The following are proposed but have not yet been formally registered with the FEFC:
1 North Bolton Sixth Form College and South College, Bolton.
2 High Peak College and the University of Derby.
3 East Birmingham College and Handsworth College.
4 Nottingham Trent University and Brackenhurst College.
5 Ealing Tertiary College and East Berkshire College.