Prospective partner plays hard to get

22nd September 2006 at 01:00
Manchester City College's refusal to merge could scupper LSC-backed plan for biggest FE institution in Britain

A super college for Manchester that would dwarf all other further education institutions in the UK has the backing of the Learning and Skills Council.

But Manchester College of Arts and Technology's (Mancat) master plan has yet to win over one vital convert - its proposed merger partner City College.

While Mancat claims merger would be in the best interests of the city's students and improve services in deprived neighbourhoods, City College says the same progress could be made through cooperation rather than a single institution.

The merger, first suggested in March, is the favoured option for Manchester in a review carried out by Adrian Perry, retired principal of Lambeth College, south London. It also has the backing of Greater Manchester learning and skills council and the city council.

Peter Tavernor, the principal of Mancat, said there are pockets of patchy provision and duplication around the city which could be addressed more efficiently by a single college.

"As Adrian Perry's report shows, this is about the learner and not about finances, which is how it should be. For example, in the city centre there are two centres for the performing arts - one of which is quite large and the other very small, and they are only about 300 yards apart.

"This is not a case of colleges having to merge because of financial problems. This is about two colleges which are a success from a financial and an inspection point of view. It's a question of what is needed for the city centre."

Mancat provides courses for more than a third of the city's school-leavers.

Technically, City College is larger because it has a contract to provide education in 40 prisons across Britain, making it bigger in terms of the funding it receives from the LSC.

One of Mancat's recent ventures in a deprived area is the Harper Hey sixth form centre whose building won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Willie Mills, principal of City College admits he is "cautious" about the plan. He agreed that a more strategic approach is needed towards coordinating FE in Manchester but he said he "remains to be convinced" that merger is the answer.

Mr Mills said: "I'm not actually opposed to a merger but I think the case needs to be made.

"Adrian Perry's analysis of the situation in Manchester is extremely good given the time that was available but I don't see that merger - and that its effectively what his report recommends - is the answer."

The University and Colleges Union says there has been an outbreak of "merger mania" in Manchester - and the north-west of England generally, but says it agrees in principle with the latest proposal.

Recent mergers include Tameside College with Hyde-Clarendon sixth form college and Stockport College with North Area sixth form college.

Another in the pipeline is Halton College with Widnes and Runcorn sixth form college. And recently Skelmersdade College, in Lancashire, also announced it is seeking a merger partner.

The UCU says competition and duplication between Mancat and City College had been potentially harmful to students and made lecturers vulnerable to redundancy as the LSC attempts to rationalise the city's courses.

Colin Gledhill, UCU regional organiser in Greater Manchester, said: "There has been a lot of silly duplication of provision between the two colleges, which have both been placing their tanks on each other's lawns, opening little centres here, there and everywhere. It would be good if that could stop."

The UCU was among the organisations which contributed to Mr Perry's inquiry.

Mr Perry's report Manchester's Further Education Review recommended the merger proposal be taken a step further with a feasibility study looking at the practicalities of bringing the two governing bodies closer together.

The merger could take then place as early as September next year, he said.

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