Size is everything for Welsh 'super college'
Ambitious plans to transform post-16 education in Wales received a major boost this week with the merger of two FE colleges to create one of the UK's largest education providers.
The merger of Coleg Llandrillo Cymru and Coleg Menai will bring into being a new "super college", boasting 34,000 students from across four local authorities in North Wales and an annual turnover of #163;70 million.
It is the latest in a series of mergers and closures under government plans to overhaul post-16 provision in the country: the total number of FE institutions in Wales has fallen from 25 to 19 in less than five years.
And the pace of change shows no sign of slowing. Last week, Cardiff and Vale College - itself created by the merger of Coleg Glan Hafren and Barry College last year - announced a "strategic partnership" with St David's Catholic Sixth Form College.
Both institutions will keep their own identities while working together to offer a wider range of courses.
In a joint statement, Mike James, principal of Cardiff and Vale, and Mark Leighfield, principal of St David's, said that both colleges had excellent teaching reputations and that the partnership would offer the highest standards of education provision, with inspirational teaching.
And another major merger could be on the cards in North Wales next year: Yale College in Wrexham and Deeside College have announced plans to form a single institution with around 27,000 students and 2,000 staff.
All of this will delight Wales's education minister Leighton Andrews, who has made no secret of his desire to see an end to "excessive duplication" of courses and a move to fewer institutions offering higher standards of education.
It is not just mergers between colleges that are changing the post-16 education landscape. A number of partnerships are developing between colleges and universities, too.
In southeast Wales, Merthyr Tydfil College has been part of the University of Glamorgan since 2006 and, in the west, Pembrokeshire College, Coleg Sir Gar and Coleg Ceredigion are working with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David on a "dual sector" university.
In addition, colleges are working more closely with private-sector training companies. Neath Port Talbot College is leading a large consortium of work-based learning providers, and Coleg Menai has merged two work-based learning providers that were previously run by the county council.
The Welsh government has also announced a new governance model for FE institutions, which will establish them along the lines of social enterprises.
John Graystone, chief executive of ColegauCymru, which represents the sector, said that, although colleges have approached the transformation agenda positively, more can still be done.
"Colleges are taking a lot of tough decisions in the interests of their learners," he said. "A whole range of partners are involved, but more can still be achieved if all parts of the education sector embrace the challenges of this new agenda together.
"Colleges are constantly managing upheaval to their fundamental structures. The challenges these bring are significant. But at the end of the day, ensuring that we do the best for our learners remains our driver."
Remarkably, much of the transformation has taken place with the minimum of fuss. So far, compulsory redundancies have been kept to a minimum and the trade unions have been largely supportive of the move to larger institutions, favouring the opportunities they offer their members.
However, one sticking point is terms and conditions. While lecturers in Wales are paid on a national scale that matches that of their school classroom counterparts, each institution has its own terms and conditions of employment.
The mergers have led to a situation where staff members working in the same institution have different teaching hours and holiday entitlement from their new colleagues.
For the past 18 months, trade unions have been locked in negotiations with ColegauCymru over the wording of a national contract for FE lecturers, which is currently on its 15th draft.
Mr Andrews is keen on a national contract, which must be cost-neutral so that no college is financially destabilised, and he wants it soon.
Sources admit that there is still "some way to go" with the negotiations, but all sides are aware that time is running out and the education minister is not known for his patience.
TWO BECOME ONE
Merthyr Tydfil College and University of Glamorgan, 2006
Welsh College of Horticulture and Deeside College, 2009
Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor and Coleg Llandrillo Cymru, 2010
Coleg Llysfasi and Deeside College, 2010
Mergers to create a new college
Gorseinon College and Swansea College (Gower College Swansea), 2010
Barry College and Coleg Glan Hafren (Cardiff and Vale College), 2011
Coleg Llandrillo Cymru and Coleg Menai (Grwp Llandrillo-Menai), 2012
Yale College, Wrexham, and Deeside College, 2013
Coleg Morgannwg and The College, Ystrach Mynach, 2013.