Derby colleges plan mega merger

29th September 2000 at 01:00
A merger of three colleges in Derby would yield a pound;30-million budget, report Ian Nash and Steve Hook

A MERGER of three colleges in Derby will create one of the biggest further education institutions in Britain under proposals being considered this week by funding chiefs.

The decision of Derby College, Wilmorton, Broomfield College and Mackworth College to press for a merger and create an institution of around 30,000 students is part of a sudden upsurge of interest in establishing giant tertiary institutions.

It also reflects the fact that, across the country, colleges are looking to carve out a distinctive FE vision. The new Derby college may leave virtually all higher education provision to the university.

This is a dramatic change in fortunes since three years ago. Then, the first full university-college merger in England was almost pulled off in Derbyshire. A three-way merger plan in 1997 involved Mackworth, High Peak College in Buxton and the University of Derby. But the plan fell apart at the 11th hour when Mackworth pulled out.

Critics of the scheme insisted that it would not have been a true FE-HE merger but a take-over by the university. A draft strategic plan for a "regional university" - which The TES saw a copy of - showed the extent of the takeover planned by the higher education staff.

The confidential draft showed that the merged institution - which would have had more than 50 per cent of its students on FE programmes - would have been run by the university's high council rather than by the two colleges.

From the start, the proposal was the subject of controversy, attracting bitter opposition from neighbouring Wilmorton and alarm among the lecturer and student unions.

David Croll, principal of Wilmorton, the college now heading the new merger plans, indicated that greater attention would be given to the pressing needs of FE, as spelled out in the Learning and Skills Act.

"This would mean us working more closely with the university, rather than competing with our own higher education courses," he said. While it would not mean abandoning HE courses, demarcation lines would be more clearly drawn and planning more effectively carried out.

He stressed, however, that a merger was based on curriculum issues rather than financial considerations. "Merger will mean that some courses which might ave been threatened in small colleges will be protected by the critical mass of a larger organisation."

The new 30,000-strong institution (around 18,000 from Wilmorton and just over 10,000 from the other colleges) would have more than 800 staff and an annual budget of over pound;30m, ranking alongside Sheffield which was once the largest college in Europe.

However, comparisons with Sheffield are carefully avoided as it is now being restructured along the lines of a federal college following financial and management difficulties.

Assurances are also being sought by unions in Derby over the future of jobs. Mr Harrison said: "There is a feeling among some staff that this is

being bounced along."

But suggestions that government officials are rushing the deadline to get it out of the way before the Learning and Skills Council takes over are denied by the three colleges. In general, recent mergers have run relatively smoothly. The latest is that of Barnet and Hendon, which opened its doors this term as a new Barnet College serving a huge urban area of north London.

In Wiltshire, a merger is planned involving Trowbridge, Chippenham and Lackham, an agricultural college that has been in some financial difficulties (see October's edition of TES College Manager).

The Derby merger plans are now out for a consultation and the Further Education Funding Council will then put them to Education Secretary David Blunkett. The new college could be up and running by next April when the Learning and Skills Council takes control of FE funding.

While Mr Croll insists the merger is for educational reasons, there are some cash problems. Broomfield College is known to have financial difficulties. The college was in dispute with its lecturers last year when, under pressure from the FEFC to make savings, it served redundancy notices on 23 lecturers and invited them to apply for new contracts.

The recent growth in mergers - FEFC figures show that 20 mergers have been approved in the past two years - reflects concerns that small colleges will lose out under the new LSC funding arrangements.

Wilmorton has been at the forefront of new developments which have attracted the attention of Tony Blair's advisers. Last year, it proposed plans to create a new breed of "super lecturer", highly-paid staff who remain in the "classroom".

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