Union, takeover or rescue package? Lucy Ward reports on the latest marriage of further education colleges. Anxious eyes were this week on two colleges which have just negotiated the gruelling path to the eleventh merger in the further education sector.
Daunting obstacles were placed in the way of the newest marriage between North Warwickshire and Hinckley colleges.
The papers have just been signed and preparations are well under way for the birth of North Warwickshire and Hinckley College on March 1. But as the festivities loom questions remain as to whether it is a true merger, a takeover or a rescue package.
The merger process will have been watched closely by others in the sector considering a similar route. Though only three other college merger schemes are at the formal proposal stage, dozens more potential partnerships - including at least three with universities - are being discussed.
One of the most significant obstacles in the path of the latest merger was the A5 - the road running along an ancient Roman highway and marks the boundary between North Warwickshire and Hinckley colleges.
There was also the border between two local authorities - Warwickshire and Leicestershire, with their separate training and enterprise councils. To complicate matters further, its two partners - lying just five miles apart - were overseen by different regional offices of the Further Education Funding Council, dealing with the East and West Midlands.
But the path to merger was rarely as straight as a Roman road. North Warwickshire vice-principal Jane Williams and Gill Glipson, Hinckley assistant principal, oversaw the union. They now look back on three exhausting years of consultation, negotiation and even despair.
As cash constraints in the sector bite deeper, some suggest a KPMG report in December 1994 predicting 100 colleges would merge or close post-incorporation may have been nearer the mark than first thought.
The North Warwickshire-Hinckley union is likely to prove typical of many in that financial motives lurk alongside its promises of improved educational opportunities for the counties' scattered rural populations.
Hinckley, a quarter of the size of its neighbour, has hit serious cash troubles, and will benefit from the relative wealth of its larger neighbour.
The legal framework for the merger - in effect the dissolution of Hinckley's corporation and transfer of assets to North Warwickshire - proved the cheapest and simplest way to effect the change, but inevitably suggests takeover. Both colleges shy away from the suggestion, and have been careful to avoid an impression of Warwickshire "shock troops" marching over the border to sort out a weaker neighbour. They insist their plans have been built around students, rather than accountants, though both admit Hinckley would have struggled to maintain provision without outside support.
The FEFC merger criteria centre on strong evidence that proposed unions will "lead to increased further education opportunities".
The case put by the two colleges hinged on a belief in enormous scope for expanding participation in further education in both north Warwickshire and Leicestershire, particularly among adults. Hinckley, a former centre for textiles and small engineering, and north Warwickshire, once a mining area and very much the poor relation of the affluent south of the county, both had populations looking to retrain or return to study.
Though the two colleges had done much to draw in students scattered through their rural communities, they felt they could work even more effectively in tandem.
Work to develop a joint curriculum has been under way since 1993. Students currently enrolling have a broader prospectus to choose from, with the strengths of both institutions - North Warwickshire's art and design facilities, Hinckley's state of the art computerised textiles machinery - now open to a wider geographical community.
Where services are duplicated on both sites, the partners have pledged to maintain them. Students have been assured they will not be bussed endlessly between sites, but - with a few exceptions - will complete their programmes on one campus. Computer links of the sort finding their way into most colleges will help.
Consultations by both colleges revealed widespread support among local authorities, employers and TECs as well as potential students, though some community groups asked for reassurance that their courses would continue.
Staff, including union representatives, were involved from an early stage. Managers promise few job losses, and hope natural wastage will absorb those. The tricky question of leadership has been simply overcome - Hinckley principal Ifor Jones is about to retire, leaving North Warwickshire chief executive Gordon Stokes to run the new institution. Both college corporations avoided replacing departing governors in the run up to the merger, paving the way for a new board with no enforced departures.
As merger day creeps nearer, Mrs Williams and Ms Clipson remain convinced both halves of the new college will have benefited from the effort involved in coming together. "This has given us the chance really to stand back and examine what we are about and where exactly we should be going," says Mrs Williams. North Warwickshire faced the further challenge of an FEFC inspection, emerging with an array of top grades.
Hinckley staff felt some unease as their future remained uncertain during the talks, admits Mrs Clipson. "But I think now the future is formed there is a sense of relief and a desire to get on with the job."
No formula exists for a perfect merger, both believe. The union must be devised to suit individual circumstances, and no college should expect an easy time of it. "It is an emotionally draining process," says Mrs Williams. "It is about overcoming the setbacks and sticking with it through thick and thin.
"Then you gather momentum and can just let go."