Government plans for the creation of a regional college structure in Lanarkshire, including all four colleges, are in chaos.
A month before colleges are due to have regionalisation models in place, communication between the principals of Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Motherwell and South Lanarkshire colleges has broken down.
Cumbernauld, Motherwell and South Lanarkshire say they are preparing to enter a three-way federation in which they would share services but retain current senior staffing structures.
But their plans do not include Coatbridge, whose principal, John Doyle, wants to see a four-college merger run by a single senior management team.
NUS Scotland has appealed to the colleges to make frontline services and student places their priority rather than senior management jobs.
Hugh Logan, principal of Motherwell College, said the three-way federation was making progress, and Coatbridge's non-participation was the "result of a strategic decision made by them".
Speaking on behalf of his colleagues at Cumbernauld and South Lanarkshire, he accused Coatbridge of proposing a "precipitous" merger of the four colleges without consultation.
The federation was built on an "open, transparent and trusting relationship", he said, and it was "difficult to conceive how, having submitted their strategic vision for Lanarkshire, Coatbridge College can be part of this federation".
Coatbridge principal Mr Doyle said his college had submitted three documents to the Scottish Funding Council in late 2011, outlining its vision for the future of FE in Lanarkshire.
His position remained that "any definitive proposal for the future educational and training needs for all the people of Lanarkshire can only go ahead with the full endorsement of all Lanarkshire colleges".
The approach by the three colleges to maintain the status quo by developing shared services while maintaining its current management structures was "not an option", he said, given the dramatic cuts to funding they faced.
"We believe that to maintain frontline services and support learners and staff, the emphasis should be on management structures. We will continue to be committed to four centres of excellence with local access provision. These are Coatbridge, Cumbernauld, Motherwell and South Lanarkshire colleges, led and supported by one merged regional management team," Mr Doyle said.
Coatbridge College delivered almost 300 more student places (12.4 per cent) than it was funded for last year while maintaining staffing levels, making it the only college in Lanarkshire "which has not equated financial cuts with cuts to staff jobs and courses", he said.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said it would be "very worrying if senior managers of colleges were to focus on their own interests rather than the interests of students".
"We must see local campuses stay open, regardless of any mergers or new arrangements between colleges, and we must see quality maintained through class sizes and teaching hours. However, most of all we have to see places protected and student support budgets protected too," he said.
Coatbridge argues that frontline provision can only be protected if all four colleges in Lanarkshire merge their management structures into one regional management team, running four "centres of excellence with local access provision".
This model could deliver "sustained savings of pound;2.5 million", according to a paper submitted to the Scottish Funding Council by John Doyle, principal of Coatbridge College.
A regional "shadow board of management" could be established and a principal designate appointed by March 2012, with a "Lanarkshire board of management" established by July 2013, according to Coatbridge.