Colleges need to "get on with it" and show evidence of progress on reform and regionalisation by February, or the Government will step in, the Education Secretary has told the further education sector.
One principal told TESS that, at a meeting between Education Secretary Michael Russell and principals last week, Mr Russell said that, while he did not want to impose regional structures, he would intervene if no progress had been made on regional funding methodologies in three months' time.
"If he has to step in, so be it, was his line," said the principal, adding that a number of his colleagues had felt threatened by it. Mr Russell also stressed he would like to see ongoing mergers speeded up, and that discussions in Edinburgh should include all three city colleges, not just Jewel and Esk and Stevenson.
Mr Russell could not guarantee any transitional funding or support funds for mergers, which principals said were crucial to making them successful. He was open to principals suggesting an alternative funding timetable, but could not commit himself to accepting it.
Scotland's Colleges were committed to reform, but were "concerned at the proposed pace for colleges to set out the specifics" for regional partnerships by February, said John Spencer, Convener of Scotland's Colleges Principals' Convention.
It was clear that the Education Secretary was expecting that some institutions would merge, he added, and it was important that, given the proposed cuts to budgets, transitional funding would be made available.
"We want to see that process given the time and diligence required to deliver for learners. Such mergers both take time to deliver, and have upfront costs in making transition - both in helping protect places for learners and minimising compulsory redundancies."
College sources said the Education Secretary acknowledged some learners may lose out on places due to the Government's focus on school-leavers, but that he had stressed his commitment to the Government's clear priorities.
He said he was committed to national pay bargaining and that compulsory redundancies should be avoided, TESS understands.
At the meeting, principals called on Mr Russell to allow for a transitional period during restructuring. They also asked to be given indicative budgets for next year before the end of this year to enable them to plan.
"We get hit right, left and centre with a baseball bat, but we are still trying to give it our best shot," one principal said. Another said: "Colleges are problem-solving organisations, but (he has) given us a timeframe that is pretty tight. What we picked up was that we don't have a choice."
A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The Scottish Government is currently consulting on Putting Learners at the Centre, our proposals for post-16 reform. With the Scottish Funding Council, we shall very shortly publish a further consultative paper, setting out how we might move to a regional system for colleges. This is an open process in which we have made quite plain we shall listen to other ideas - as we have done in a number of events with college staff in the last few weeks, and as we will continue to do throughout the consultation period and beyond.
"That said, we have made clear in Putting Learners at the Centre that we must maintain pace and momentum on reform."