More transparency over merger plans please, demands minister - 15 February 2013
With college budgets already pared to the bone and more cuts likely to be on the way, the last couple of years have seen a number of colleges opt for mergers and federations to reduce their costs through economies of scale.
But FE minister Matthew Hancock has issued a call for more "transparency and openness" around the process. Most significantly, he has called for more consultation to take place when a merger is being considered, and insisted that any plans for a merger or significant structural change should be "through open and competitive processes", rather than simply being agreed by neighbouring institutions behind closed doors.
The starting point for any change, he writes in a letter seen by TES and sent to chairs of college corporations this week, "should be an assessment of need and how different delivery models might fulfil it".
The minister also tells colleges they must "consult widely and transparently on your proposals, taking explicit account of the views of the communities you serve and of other interested parties including the LEP, local authority and the funding agencies". Consultation, Mr Hancock adds, should take place at an "early stage" in the process in addition to statutory consultations required before a college corporation can be dissolved.
"Finally," he adds, "any actions you take to secure new partners or change your delivery model should be through open and competitive processes which will allow the best possible solution to be identified to meet local needs. In these cases, transparency and openness on the options that have been considered, and a clear rationale for the final proposal, are both critical and need to be in place before the final, formal consultation."
It remains to be seen whether cash-strapped institutions will be too pleased at effectively being forced to reveal their intentions before they have formal plans on the table. Interestingly, the letter also suggests they would be obliged to offer the opportunity to other FE organisations to come on board, rather than merely announcing their preferred partner.
Potentially, this could be good news for colleges in a healthy financial position looking to expand their empire in other parts of the country. It's safe to say that institutions keen to become the next NCG or The Manchester College will be keeping their ear to the ground.
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