Reports that incorporation spelt death for small colleges were widely exaggerated, writes Neil Merrick.
Wide-scale mergers and the death of small colleges which were predicted when colleges left local authority control in 1993 have failed to materialise.
But two contrasting sets of proposals - one currently before Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard and the other awaiting approval from the Further Education Funding Council - signal an upsurge in mergers on the horizon.
Mrs Shephard has been asked to allow two tertiary colleges in Sunderland to become a new "super college" while the FEFC is considering a proposed merger in the Midlands which could prevent one struggling college from axing more courses.
The number of colleges in the FEFC's northern region has already fallen from 31 to 28 after three small sixth-form colleges were effectively taken over by larger FE colleges. The proposed City of Sunderland College from the merger of Monkwearmouth and Wearside colleges would be a very different proposition. The new tertiary college, due to open next February, with 4,000 full-time and 15,000 part-time students, would be one of the 10 largest further education institutions in the country.
Wearside principal Alan Cass said that as both colleges were extremely successful they were not merging to survive. He added that pressure on both colleges to achieve growth targets threatened to drawn them into wasteful competition.
A merger would allow the new college to offer a much wider range of A-levels and vocational courses. A new site in west Sunderland, which is poorly served by post-16 institutions, is also possible.
He predicted other FE colleges may follow the super-college route. He said: "Instead of throwing money at each other, we can concentrate our marketing on our real growth in areas that are not presently being touched."
Failure to achieve growth targets has had more dramatic repercussions at Hinkley College in Leicestershire. The small college, which has about 1, 000 students, axed uneconomic construction and engineering courses. It may be forced to make further cuts if a planned merger with North Warwickshire College of Technology and Art falls through.
Hinkley chair of governors Kath Taylor said: "Rather than reduce courses it was more sensible to look at a merger."
Before the merger proposal can be put to Mrs Shephard, it must get FEFC backing.
Mrs Taylor admitted that there was concern that North Warwickshire College, which is four times larger than Hinkley College, might be taking on a liability. But she added: "We are giving North Warwickshire the opportunity to expand without making a large capital investment."
North Warwickshire principal Gordon Stokes, whose college is just four miles from Hinkley, said mergers between smaller and larger colleges must be repeated elsewhere in the country. "Unless small colleges have a particularly sharp focus, such as sixth-form colleges which concentrate on A-levels, they are very vulnerable."
In England, the FEFC has received fewer than 10 applications to merge or dissolve corporations in the two-and-a-half years since independence. Some colleges merged with higher education institutions, leaving the further education sector.