Super-size me? Maybe not

25th January 2008 at 00:00
As Scotland's latest college merger waits for the go-ahead, the authorities in England are having a change of heart. Joseph Lee reports.

Funding chiefs in England have revealed they are thinking again about the way college mergers are approved as super-sized colleges are formed at record speed. Nearly one in 10 colleges is now in merger talks.

The Learning and Skills Council has announced it is going to hold consultations over possible changes to the criteria by which mergers are approved.

John Denham, Secretary of State at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in London, has already expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of mergers in improving quality. "There is no evidence that larger colleges provide more effective education," he told the Association of Colleges last November.

Despite his views, City College Manchester and Manchester College of Arts and Technology won approval two weeks ago to create England's largest further education college.

At least 35 colleges are involved in talks with neighbours to join forces or have had mergers confirmed already this year. Last year saw eight mergers completed, equalling the previous record years of 1999 and 2000. If all those known to have started talks come to an agreement, it would mean 16 mergers in 2008.

Colleges in Wales are likely to see an even bigger upheaval, with the Webb review calling for all colleges with a turnover of less than pound;15 million to be merged with neighbouring institutions.

Julian Gravatt, the AOC's director of funding, said there were financial and organisational issues driving the merger fever, but they could improve education in some circumstances. "Quite often the driver for mergers is financial," he said, "where you've got one financially weak college merging with a financially strong one, or where there are two colleges that want to merge to make a bigger college which has the potential to do a large rebuild.

"Educational issues are important, of course, but they're not necessarily the driving force."

Nevertheless, Mr Gravatt said mergers of unsuccessful institutions with thriving neighbours have worked - and students get a better education. Rycotewood College was successfully sued by students in 2003 for its inadequate courses. It is now part of Oxford and Cherwell College and rated satisfactory or better.

Research commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council in 2003 found that large colleges in England did find economies of scale after they merged, and their size protected them in the market. But financial benefits were rare and only came in the long term, while mergers created instability which could affect the quality of teaching in the short term.

Barry Lovejoy, head of FE at the University and College Union, said mergers tended to cause more upheaval and job insecurity among managers, while lecturers were relatively unscathed.

"We are not opposed to mergers where they make sense in terms of improving quality and making a stable financial future," he said. "Our main concerns are swift and meaningful negotiations over harmonising conditions and pay, and we would be arguing for the protection of jobs and the avoidance of compulsory redundancies."

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