22nd July 2016 at 00:00
Emerging problems

Mismanaged mergers?

As far as many influential Westminster types are concerned, mergers are the secret to ending up with “fewer, larger and more financially resilient” colleges. Hooray!

But it’s fair to say that the evidence to back this up is pretty patchy. Take, for example, the experience of institutions in other nations. Interestingly, while it was the likes of Norway that attracted the attention of Nick Boles (may he rest in peace) during his tenure as skills minister, the biggest similarity to the area reviews can actually be found in college reorganisation somewhere much closer to home: Scotland.

Today, the Scottish college sector looks very different to how it did in 2011. The 37 colleges that existed in 2011-12 have been merged into 20 larger institutions. Along with the number of colleges, staff numbers in the sector have also dropped – by almost 10 per cent, according to some calculations – and there are thousands fewer students than there were three years ago.

So how has it worked out? As luck would have it, last week brought the publication of a post-merger report on the test case for the programme: Edinburgh College, which was formed in 2012 from three predecessor colleges in the city.

Prior to the merger, officials anticipated savings of £9.5 million annually through a voluntary severance scheme. But, after pumping in £16 million in financial support for the transition, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) writes that it is “disappointed that despite this level of resource many of the actions necessary to fully implement the merger are not complete”.

And while the college’s financial results initially improved after the merger, reported a deficit of £5.1 million in what the SFC confusingly describes as “the 16-month financial year of 2014-15” (FErret didn’t realise Scotland had its own calendar). Oh, and in 2014-15 its income dropped 7 per cent below the target, “largely due to a failure to deliver activity targets”. The SFC concludes that the college’s financial position is “unsustainable” and the staffing structure remains “not fit for purpose”. Keep up the good work, chaps.

South of the border, it’s a good job that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is drawing up a new insolvency regime for colleges. Or at least it was until it was stripped of responsibility for skills and renamed the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Hmm. Other than that, everything’s going swimmingly.

Sixth-form an orderly queue

One side effect of the government’s move to allow sixth-form colleges to convert to academy status has been to put the Association of Colleges (AoC) in a pickle.

Eighty out of the 93 sixth-form colleges are paid-up AoC members but, under the association’s rules, only incorporated colleges can join or remain in the club – potentially hitting its coffers at a time when it is likely to also have dozens of members merging.

However, the AoC has come up with a solution: sixth-form colleges that convert to academy status will be allowed to become affiliate subscribers. For a reduced membership fee, this class of member is given access to AoC’s market intelligence, networking opportunities and special conference rates but is not represented by the AoC’s campaigning on policy matters.

It will be fascinating to see how many colleges that sign up to become academies will take the AoC up on this offer. Especially given that they will be allowed to remain full members of the sector’s other representative body, the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association.

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