Partnerships put lid on Pandora's box;Comment;Opinion;Further Education;News amp; opinion

19th November 1999 at 00:00
ACCORDING to Greek legend, when Pandora opened her famous box all the evils which have plagued mankind escaped before she could put the lid back on. "Hope", however, remained inside as a comfort.

And if you want to know what happened to "hope", then visit a disused foundry in West Belfast on the "peace line" overlooking the Falls Road.

Standing on that hilly ground, the vista is stunning. There your eye can rove from the serried ranks of houses which comprise the homes and fortresses of the two communities, to the dense sprawl of central Belfast with its spires and disused docks and the white facade of Stormont glimpsed in the distance. Finally, on the horizon, like the opened lid of Pandora's box, are the Mountains of Mourne.

The name of the site is Springvale and this is where the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute plan to build an education village to bring new hope to the city's communities.

Springvale is one recent example of a 50:50 partnership between a university and college designed to preserve the independence of both governing bodies and to respond to local needs.

Numbers of college mergers are set to reach record levels as the Government sets out its reforms to the post-16 sector. But a study carried out for College Manager, to be launched by The TES at next week's Association of Colleges conference, shows that many mergers have failed to make the intended financial savings.

There are, however, many examples of universities and colleges working together in different types of collaborative arrangements which fall short of merger.

Some of these arrangements are based on joint venture companies which are owned or controlled by the partner institutions. They often have a variety of purposes - as a project vehicle to contract for the provision of services (such as procuring the development of Springvale), or to bid for funds, or as a means of avoiding duplication of expenditure in administration, overheads and marketing.

Other arrangements depend simply on a contract between the partners, perhaps in relation to curriculum specialisation or the co-ordination of learning resources, or, to create an academic federation centred on a federal senate.

Features which all these arrangements share are flexibility to collaborate at whatever pace the partners decide, and respect for the autonomy of governing bodies, unless they choose to integrate.

Mergers, by contrast, are often the blunt instrument of change. They are frequently difficult to achieve, can involve disruption and expense and it is likely to be sometime before cost savings are be realised. This is not to say that other forms of collaboration are free of problems (far from it), but they do have the advantages of relative speed of implementation and can be less threatening to managers, governors and staff.

Many mergers are, of course, well planned and sensible, but too often they only happen when a principal stands down or a college runs into financial difficulties. To rationalise education in such a reactive and haphazard manner may prove to be the equivalent of opening another Pandora's box.

On the other hand, forward thinking and creative collaboration between universities and colleges may be an attractive alternative to merger and, as in Belfast, open up opportunities for advancement which would not otherwise be possible.

John T Hall is head of education law, Eversheds

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