Ealing Tertiary College, put on special measures by the Further Education Funding Council after a highly critical inspectors' report, is now looking at merger bids from five other colleges.
Principal Mike Griffin has been sent on long-term sick leave and the governors have appointed Martin Tolhurst on secondment from Newham College to carry out a recovery operation, which is likely to involve a merger. The plan comes before the west London learning and skills council next month and is seen as sounding the death-knell for London's youngest tertiary college.
"We realise this will be our first big test case, so we are already studying the FEFC files," Peter Pledger, the council's chief executive, said. "How we deal with this will have a long-term impact on the future shape of lifelong learning in the area and probably nationally as well. When we get the Ealing governors' proposals we will carry out a public consultation and open debate. In making our recommendation to the national LSC our focus will be, not on the institution, but on the learner".
Mr Tolhurst said bids had been received from four nearby colleges - Richmond-upon-Thames Tertiary College, Hammersmit and West London College, West Thames College and Uxbridge College - and another which did not want its name disclosed.
"There is confidence that a merger is the way forward and that is why we are seeking a strategic partner, which will be announced in a month's time. This really is the death of the tertiary system, I am afraid," said Mr Tolhurst.
The recovery plan would be likely to include a separate sixth form academy in Southall, he said. "The tertiary college never really got going because of the competition from school sixth forms and opting out. In the new climate the best solution seems to be a combination of centres of vocational excellence and sixth form centres. We are aiming to strengthen the opportunities in Ealing and the surrounding area."
Meanwhile, Richmond-upon-Thames Tertiary College, one of the bidders, is also planning to set up a separate sixth form centre with the backing of the LEA. "There is a recognition now that some students do better in an academic environment rather than in the hurly-burly of an FE college," a spokesman said. The plan was in line with the Government's recent policy paper on centres of excellence in FE.