Plans for the most ambitious merger of further and higher education institutions so far reached consultation stage this week despite three colleges dropping out.
Derby University, neighbouring Mackworth College and High Peak College, Buxton, are pushing ahead with proposals to combine by 1998. Burton, Broomfield and South East Derbyshire colleges, all originally interested, have now backed out of a full legal merger.
The consultation document also makes clear that the proposed mega-institution, being billed as creating a "comprehensive system of post-school education for the people of the region and beyond", will be an "expanded university".
The term could deepen the concerns of some in FE that colleges combining with larger and richer HE partners risk being swallowed up. Fears of "mission drift" - a shift away from traditional vocational provision by colleges - have dogged merger proposals.
If the latest scheme goes ahead it will be the first full FE- HE merger. Past examples have either combined general FE colleges or specialist colleges and universities.
The Derby proposal, which involves the dissolution of the two partner FE colleges and the transfer of their assets to the university, will have to be approved by the Further Education Funding Council and Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.
The FEFC insists it remains neutral over FE-HE mergers, but is known to take a particularly tough line when judging such proposals. Chief executive Sir William Stubbs gave short shrift to draft Derby plans at a conference on college-university partnerships last May, saying much work was needed to demonstrate advantages of the radical step.
Earlier this year, proposals for a union between the University of Central England and East Birmingham college were sent back to the drawing board by the FEFC, which asked for more detail.
The Derby consultation document outlines a Utopian vision of an "innovative, accessible European university which will make available high quality continuing education, especially to those living in the region".
It says the new comprehensive post-16 institution will offer increased access and participation in education and training for all ages and abilities, a "one-stop" service to respond to local needs and scope for expanding the FE curriculum even "in a time of financial constraint".
However, some sceptics have suggested the scheme is aimed more at benefiting the institutions involved than students. Derby University is short of cash and Mackworth College has just made redundancies. The document anticipates increased economies of scale and more efficient use of resources on the three main sites.
Pledges of improved progression from further to higher education for students in the region are based on plans for a credit accumulation and transfer system across the merged institution, allowing learners to move easily between levels.
However, the FEFC will want to know what implications the scheme will have for students hoping to attend Derby University who have not attended the two merging colleges. It will need to examine whether those at the merged institution will be given preferential treatment in the allocation of university places.
The consultation document makes reference to a range of options for uniting the two colleges and the university, ranging from the dissolution of all three institutions and the creation of an entirely new body down to informal collaboration.
It does not refer to possible alternative partnerships involving other neighbouring colleges. The FEFC will have to be convinced that the institutions involved have fully considered other options.
Following consultation, the merging institutions will present a formal proposal to their respective boards for approval. They will then go to the FEFC.
Derby University vice-chancellor Professor Roger Waterhouse hailed the consultation as the first step on the ladder to a vision of "delivering the concept of lifelong learning to as many people of the region and beyond as possible".