The Scottish Funding Council continues to take a cautious approach to the merger of further education colleges, Neil Munro writes.
The issue of relationships between colleges led to growing, but tentative, moves towards collaboration following incorporation, but these stopped short of a formal link-up. Early steps, involving Glasgow College of Building and Printing merging with Glasgow College of Food Technology and Dumfries and Galloway College with Barony College, faltered and failed.
By contrast, the past year has seen a relative flurry of activity. The two Glasgow colleges eventually made it to the altar, taking the married name of Glasgow Metropolitan College. Fife and Glenrothes colleges formed Adam Smith College, while Falkirk and Clackmannan colleges emerged together as Forth Valley College.
The funding council is now wrestling with the controversial pound;100 million "education village" concept in Glasgow city centre, which would see some kind of union involving the "Glasgow Met", the Central College of Commerce, Stow College and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.
In its latest observations on the subject, the key group of the funding council which advises on the use of strategic funds to support mergers notes: "Each merger implementation proposal is unique. The group has to be sensitive to the very different circumstances that may prevail, both within the institutions and the geographical areas they serve."
In the current 2005-06 academic year, the funding council has allocated Pounds 5.1 million "to help the sector make significant strategic changes in the nature of provision, its delivery and management". This is the same sum as last year and includes additional expenditure necessary for colleges to prepare for and implement merger proposals.
The final decision on any merger proposal lies with the Scottish lifelong learning minister of the day, on advice from the funding council, which has a mergers advisory committee to offer the detailed scrutiny it requires.
The most recent report by the Auditor General for Scotland on the funding council's performance (TESS, January 27) stated that, while the financial health and leadership of the sector was continuing to improve, better strategic leadership would be necessary if the benefits of collaboration and merger in areas such as Glasgow were to be realised.
The most recent ministerial guidance to the funding council, set out in November by Nicol Stephen, the Lifelong Learning Minister, just after the council was established, does not mention mergers. Ministers prefer to concentrate on the merits of "collaboration" and leave it to the sector to work how that might best be achieved.
In his letter, Mr Stephen said that "we will need to build on the existing links between colleges and universities and support collaboration".
He added: "I expect to see an improvement in the range, number and effectiveness of cross-sectoral learning routes, bridging provision and articulated qualifications, including from schools."