Pressure from the Scottish Funding Council to make progress on creating a "super-college" in Glasgow city centre finally paid off last week with the news that three of the existing colleges have signed a "historic agreement" to merge - leaving one of the original four, Stow College, to go it alone.
Despite inconclusive evidence about the benefits of large-scale mergers, the three colleges have agreed to abandon the original aim of "co-location" on two sites, under which each would have its identity preserved. This was one of the major sticking points for Stow College, which led it to pull out of the discussions last month.
In a joint statement, the three principals, Paul Little of Central College, Janet Okten of Glasgow College of Nautical Studies and Tom Wilson of Metropolitan College, said: "We are clear in our new shared mission: to deliver world-class learning for a local, regional, national and international market."
Mr Little, who came from Northern Ireland, where he worked in an institution formed from six centres, commented: "Who wouldn't want to study and work in a world-class, state-of-the-art, technology-rich educational environment?"
He told The TESS: "This will be good for learners, good for staff and good for Glasgow."
The new college will dominate FE in Scotland, accounting for one in 10 college students. Stow had deep reservations about whether a college of this size could be effective. "We think it will be too big to offer the personal learning experiences colleges excel at," John Mitchell, the chair of its board, commented.
But the statement from the three principals was adamant that the new college would "deliver unparalleled benefits to our learners, including the provision of a comprehensive curriculum that widens access and supports participation, achievement and progress ... supported by a wider, more specialised range of staff and services than our individual colleges can offer at present."
Mr Little said he believed students would benefit from being in a "cosmopolitan" community of 40-50,000 learners. He was well aware of the challenges which a college of that size presented, so it was important to have "the right philosophy, the right climate and the right culture".
John McClelland, chair of the Scottish Funding Council, who has played a key role in arm-twisting the colleges into an agreement, praised the move as "the right one for the colleges, for Glasgow and for Scotland". He said he believed the merger decision would provide "momentum" to develop the two-site campus for the college - on Cathedral Street, near the Merchant City and Thistle Street on the Clyde.
Vic Emery, the businessman who chairs New Campus Glasgow, called it "an exciting advance". He expressed optimism that the plans would be delivered "on time and on budget".
The campus is scheduled to be completed and ready for business in 2014.
MIXED FORTUNES OF SHARED MISSIONS
The most recent cost-benefit analysis of college mergers, carried out by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in London, concluded that "the limited evidence available does not provide a consistent message".
The report added: "It appears that success of mergers is not guaranteed, but may be dependent on a complex set of local factors and conditions with no consistent message about when mergers are most likely to succeed."
The study said there could be benefits from integrating curricula, reducing over-provision and improving capital investment. But there was also evidence that substantial cost savings were difficult to achieve, and that communications and college culture were critical factors for success. There was "insufficient evidence" that larger colleges performed better.
Reviews in Wales and Northern Ireland, which have decided to move to a smaller network of regional colleges, "do not include any evidence that larger colleges are necessarily more effective, or that college mergers result in net benefits."
A suggestion in the FE review for the Welsh Assembly Government that efficiency savings would only make an impact when a college's turnover reached Pounds 15 million was not backed up, DIUS states.