Unravelling the knotty problem of college mergers

22nd July 2016 at 00:00
To be successful, merging institutions must work hard to persuade staff and learners of the benefits

Governments have short memories. Politicians, trapped in the electoral cycle, are propelled by change. Former education secretary Michael Gove embodied the phenomenon with his pitch for leadership of the Conservatives, which proclaimed that his heart was “burning with the desire for change – not business as usual but a bold vision”. Yet the very act of change increases the risk of repeating past mistakes, as George Santayana almost said.

Sadly, a college’s grasp of history can be similarly relaxed, especially when it comes to mergers. According to a University of Warwick study of mergers between 1996 and 2000, the majority of colleges substantially underestimated the challenges the process would bring.

In 64 per cent of cases reviewed, there was a substantial and sustained clash of cultures between the two merging colleges. This was always underestimated and often ignored in the planning phase. Harmonisation of staff contracts, working conditions and management systems typically takes anywhere between three and 10 years. Yet colleges commonly misconceived the merger to be complete at the start of the process.

Colleges currently considering merging with universities might reflect on what happened in Harrogate, Reading, Lincoln and Penrith – cases where mergers between higher education institutions and colleges crumbled owing to the former’s struggle to manage the unfamiliar FE provision.

The long list of universities that have extracted themselves prematurely from validation or franchising relationships with colleges is evidence of the frailty of relationships between different types of institution. That’s not to say that the FE and HE partnerships now in play won’t succeed – there are successful precedents, such as the University of Derby’s role in Buxton and Leek College. But planners need to understand the factors common to success and failure if they are to make mergers work this time.

Consent and communication

The literature is clear: substantial cost savings from mergers are difficult to achieve. Robust evidence that merged institutions perform better than others simply does not exist.

This latest round of mergers, accelerated by the area review process, is heavily influenced by austerity. Colleges are converging to keep courses or campuses alive. Yet the evidence from the Warwick study is compelling: when the main intention of a merger is to save money, or respond to a funding body or regulator, the risk of failure significantly increases.

This is primarily because success is dependent on gaining the consent and support of other people, and that support in turn requires a compelling rationale. “Because we have to” just doesn’t cut it. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she is a terrible parent when it comes to influence.

As a public relations professional, I am particularly interested in how merging institutions manage that influence – alongside relationships, cultures, identity and communication. In Scotland, for instance, the merger programme has evidently failed to gain the consent of one very important group: teaching staff. Nine out of 10 lecturers say mergers have failed to improve quality, management or service to the community.

Alongside consulting governors and college staff on the plan, it is “vital that you properly engage with the views of people in your local community”. These words were said by Andy Dobson, principal of Kidderminster College, about its merger with NCG. Yet colleges commonly struggle to engage the interest of the outside world in mergers, attracting just a handful of written responses and holding stakeholder meetings that are poorly attended – events about two recent mergers failed to attract a single attendee.

Search for identity

Nottingham’s New and Central colleges teach more than 40,000 students combined in a city of 750,000 people but received only 241 responses to their merger consultation. And in the context of our review of consultation responses, this is a comparative triumph. Effective consultation requires a professional communication capacity that many colleges simply do not possess.

Settling on the right identity poses another significant challenge. The key for rural or borough colleges is, typically, to strike a balance between retaining a local identity and simultaneously injecting quality from a new brand, whereas this is less relevant in a metropolitan context. (This is why, for instance, Cricklade College became Andover College after the merger with Sparsholt College, but the Manchester College’s many sites would not benefit from separate brands.)

Not all colleges get it right. LeSoCo, for instance, now calls itself Lewisham Southwark College in its external communications. However, controversy does not always result in retrenchment. North and East Devon Colleges’ transformation to Petroc initially attracted criticism from some quarters, but appears, if you’ll excuse the pun, to now be successfully set in stone. The task for colleges considering mergers is to understand why.

Ben Verinder is director of Chalkstream Communications @BenVerinder

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