The three Edinburgh further education colleges are calling in consultants to probe the scope for greater collaboration.
The boards of Stevenson College Edinburgh, Jewel and Esk College and Edinburgh's Telford College are hoping to take a decision on the way forward in the early part of next year. The colleges, a combined Pounds 70 million business which serves 70,000 students and employs around 2,000 staff, are careful to avoid mentioning the M-word.
But Tom Drake, chair of the board at Jewel and Esk who also chairs the colleges' collaboration steering group, also said: "We wouldn't rule merger out - equally, we wouldn't rule it in either. Nothing is ruled out."
Making the announcement at a special reception in the Scottish Parliament last Thursday, Mr Drake continued: "We start with no preconceptions as to what the outcome will be, but we are all firmly agreed that we can work together even more effectively than we have in the past. Whatever we decide to do will be based firmly on clear and fully-tested evidence that it will lead to real improvements for FE in Edinburgh."
The move comes as the colleges are bracing themselves for a huge surge in applications for places in a city where jobs have traditionally not been hard to find. Now, however, unpublished figures are understood to show school leaver unemployment in Edinburgh nearing the top of the table - at the same time as the financial sector is beginning to shed jobs.
The unprecedented demand for college courses from young and older students, already being experienced by colleges throughout the country (TESS April 24), is therefore expected to be particularly acute in Edinburgh. "It is important colleges speak with one voice, both in discussions with the universities and with employers," said Brian Lister, the Stevenson principal.
One senior figure stressed that these factors underlined the importance of the move by the three colleges, because it was not just about their future but also about further education in the capital where the post-school sector has traditionally been dominated by the universities. "Further education in Edinburgh is almost completely invisible, sitting geographically and metaphorically on the edge," he said. "The new pressures we face make it imperative that we do something about that."
The Scottish Funding Council, which will give the college sector Pounds 3m in the 2009-10 academic year to support collaborative plans and activities, is quietly encouraging developments such as that in Edinburgh.
John McClelland, chair of the SFC, told The TESS that the council is involved in discussions on collaboration with colleges in other parts of Scotland. He would not say where and he, too, stopped short of using the M-word.
But he did add: "In these times particularly, it is important that we make sure we are delivering value for money. It's not about reducing what colleges are doing: it's about optimising. We must release as much resource as we can to the frontline."
The predominant merger activity at present is the Pounds 300m plan to combine Glasgow Metropolitan College, Central College of Commerce and Glasgow College of Nautical Studies. There is collaboration in the north also where the FE colleges act as the basis of the fledgling University of the Highlands and Islands.
In the central belt, the three Fife FE institutions - Adam Smith, Elmwood and Carnegie - have adopted the brand name of Scotland's Colleges (Fife). And elsewhere, the Lothians, Borders and Fife colleges have formed an articulation group, led by Napier University in Edinburgh, to speed up the flow of students from further to higher education.
The moves in Edinburgh represent a culmination of collaborative activity which has been going on for some time. Joint meetings have been held involving the three boards, and the colleges have worked together on curriculum mapping, staff development and the sharing of services.
A partnership of the three colleges and Edinburgh City Council has seen two more recent developments - a plan to set out who does what in schoolcollege links, and a project to improve services for looked-after children and those leaving care.
Mr Drake is at pains to emphasise, however, that the aim is not to centralise FE activity in the capital, and the colleges will not forget their local roots. "I can assure you that none of the three colleges will be neglecting our responsibilities to stakeholders in the Lothians and further afield," he declared.