THREE LONDON colleges are to join forces to form one of the biggest further education institutions in the country.
Lewisham College, Greenwich Community College and Bexley College will be replaced by the new college in 2008.
The institution - yet to be given a name - will be better placed to bid for work in an increasingly competitive post-16 education world, said Geoff Pine, principal of Greenwich Community College. It would have 40,000 students on sites in south-east London.
Mr Pine told FE Focus: "I would stress this is an entirely voluntary arrangement between the three colleges.
"I am not obsessed with the size of the new institution, but what is exciting about this is that we will become a significant player in the context of contestability and competition."
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, which recently joined the influential 157 Group of larger colleges, was not available for comment.
As the three colleges celebrate agreeing the merger - widely believed to be the first of many still to come in the capital - a further plan is being hatched to combine five colleges in Leeds.
The proposals from the Learning and Skills Council would create the largest FE college in the whole country.
Park Lane College, Joseph Priestley College, Thomas Danby College, Leeds College of Building and Leeds College of Technology have until September to discuss their preferred options before a one-month formal consultation begins.
According to a review commissioned by the LSC, the colleges should either form a federation or merge in order to prevent needless duplication of courses and to make better use of their resources.
Mike Lowe, LSC area director for West Yorkshire, said: "We have got an agreement from all the chairs and principals that the status quo is not an option."
"The FE estate by and large across Leeds leaves a lot to be desired. We're prepared to make an investment to upgrade that estate."
College mergers have been a characteristic of further education since they left local education authority control in 1993 - and the pace has accelerated as they look for economies of scale.
In London, government priorities which have reduced funding for some low-level courses, combined with competition from private training firms, have led principals to consider the option more seriously.
City College Manchester could also be merging with Manchester College of Arts and Technology.
The biggest merger decision so far was in Northern Ireland, where 16 colleges were recently reduced in number to just six.
New measures will soon be in place to allow colleges to be forced into merger by the LSC - subject to ministerial approval - when provision is deemed to have fallen below the required standard.