Glasgow duo lead the way
The smiles that greeted the green light for the merger of two Glasgow colleges were certainly for an event to celebrate.
The gestation period has been a long one. It is more than eight years since Stan Mason, then principal of Glasgow Caledonian University, sat round a table with the principals of the five Glasgow city centre colleges to discuss a "supermerger" - the creation of an integrated HE-FE institution.
That ambitious plan collapsed soon after.
But the colleges continued talking and out of these discussions the next plan to emerge was the proposed merger of Glasgow College of Building and Printing and Glasgow College of Food Technology. Absent then - and still absent now - was the obvious third party. Central College of Commerce sits between the other two on Cathedral Street in Glasgow's city centre. A great opportunity has again been lost.
But perhaps that phrase "great opportunity lost" needs to be examined. Does it carry too readily the assumption that bigger is better and that a merger of this kind is a good thing?
The Glasgow city centre merger was not the only such proposal to fail in the 1990s. Dumfries and Barony colleges were on the brink of joining, but fell at the last hurdle when the Barony chair vetoed the proposal with his casting vote.
Falkirk and Clackmannan looked set to have a fruitful collaboration leading to merger built round joint plans to introduce FE facilities to Stirling.
Again the smaller college vetoed the plan.
Anniesland and Clydebank even got to the point of arranging for Hugh Walker, then principal of Anniesland, to move to Clydebank in preparation for merger - only to see the plans collapse when the scale of the problems at Clydebank were revealed.
And so for a variety of reasons - institutional pride, egos and personality clashes, cultural incompatibility, financial complexity - no merger proposal in the 1990s came to fruition.
Not that there was inertia in the sector. Across the country there were innovative collaborative arrangements wherever one looked. In the Highlands and Islands, the network of colleges became the core of the UHI university project, albeit with a good deal of argument on all sides and some reluctance by some. This was not surprising given the fundamental issues of diversity and local autonomy that had to be addressed, never mind some searing issues of local competence.
At the other end of the country, Dumfries and Galloway College was a major player in the creation of the exciting and innovative Crichton project - demonstrating, alongside Paisley and Glasgow universities, the potential of cross-sectoral working.
In Fife, the four colleges, and combinations of them, worked closely together on a number of major projects, with Fife and Glenrothes colleges believing the experience to have been so fruitful that they are now reaching the point of considering full merger.
And in Edinburgh, where hitherto there has not been quite the same degree of commitment to collaboration, a forum has now been established to develop ways of achieving closer more structured mutual support.
But why is there more interest now and in recent years than in the early 1990s? The early years of FE were characterised by a funding regime that encouraged fierce competition for students. The more students the bigger the budget. And the national funding model tended to foster a "beggar my neighbour" approach to competition.
That national funding approach had its positive outcomes - colleges had to become leaner and fitter to survive. Unit costs were driven down and colleges became much more market driven and customer oriented. But there was a serious downside too: and some colleges were weakened in the aggressively competitive environment.
Then in the latter part of the 1990s, helped by the change of political complexion brought about by the change of Government in 1997, collaboration rather than competition became the new watchword. Colleges began tentatively to explore more co-operative ways of working with their erstwhile competitors.
This change of attitude has been reinforced by similar developments elsewhere in the lifelong learning landscape, both within and between educational and training sectors - and embracing qualifications and curriculum too. There are now closer relationships between many colleges and their neighbouring universities; between schools and colleges; and between local enterprise companies and colleges.
Nor is it entirely surprising that the first full-scale merger proposal should emerge in Glasgow. The FE landscape is strikingly different in the city - a historic "hub and spoke" model which developed a cluster of specialist vocational colleges in the centre and a necklace of community colleges in the outer suburbs. This was a very different pattern from that of the more homogeneous colleges in Edinburgh.
But just as the early national funding model encouraged robust competition, so too it encouraged what has been described as "the rush to the undifferentiated middle". To expand their base, the specialist colleges put on courses designed to appeal to a much broader clientele and these began to look similar to those of the other specialist colleges and community colleges.
Ultimately, the deciding factors should not be regard for institutional autonomy, pride, loyalty or status, although this is not to decry the importance of culture and values in any organisation. But rather, what kind of college best serves the needs and demands of potential and actual students in the new circumstances of the early 21st century?
If the answer is that a college is too small to afford to provide the scale and quality of provision necessary, or is too narrow in the breadth of provision or too isolated to be able to offer the kind of outward-looking experience that modern students require, then the answer may well to be to contemplate merger.
It is not the only way forward, of course. Strategic alliances between colleges, the pooling of support services, the development of close articulation in course provision to offer a shared curriculum - all these and others are ways of meeting the same ends. And for many colleges, these ways will be more appropriate than full-scale merger.
But the fact that two of Glasgow's major colleges have come to the view that the way forward is through merger must raise questions for many others.
Smaller may indeed be beautiful - but, for some, bigger may well be better.
Ed Weeple is former head of lifelong learning in the Scottish Executive.