Welcoming mergers has worked for Welsh colleges…

19th February 2016 at 00:00
…and it could be a positive step for the English FE sector too, argues the principal of Coleg Cambria

Coleg Cambria, based in north-east Wales but operating over the wider Cheshire-Mersey area, was formed from the merger of four colleges. It is a large college and a member of the 157 Group. Far more importantly, it is also the number one FE college in Wales and officially outstanding, having come through a recent inspection by Estyn (Wales’ version of Ofsted) with flying colours. So can big be beautiful, and can FE in England learn lessons from its neighbours in Wales?

As the head of an FE college working along and over the national border since 1999, I’ve been a keen follower of developments in English FE. Education is one of the areas devolved to the Welsh government, but the border in north-east Wales is very porous. It doesn’t really exist in the eyes of the people that cross it every day in both directions – including a significant proportion of our staff, learners and employer partners.

‘Transformation’ of colleges

The Welsh government has actively encouraged reconfiguration of FE since the mid-noughties. After a series of independent reviews, the number of colleges has more than halved to an eclectic mix of 14 institutions. The Welsh approach, dubbed “transformation”, has been non-prescriptive, but driven by ambition, research and strategy, and actively encouraged and incentivised through collaboration with the government and others.

The way we’ve done things has been quite different from Scotland and Northern Ireland. As in England, our legal status (“non-profit institutions serving households”) is different, and gives us greater autonomy to build on the success of 1993 incorporation.

Mergers in Wales have been a combination of the “rescue” and “strategic” varieties. Coleg Cambria was formed after three successive mergers. In 2009, the outstanding-rated Deeside College in effect took over the failing Welsh College of Horticulture, and then built on this in 2010 through a similar merger with another land-based college – Llysfasi. During this period the enlarged institution continued to operate as Deeside College.

In 2013, a “proper” merger took place between the large, high-performing Deeside and Yale colleges. Both were dissolved and transferred into the new Coleg Cambria, with an annual income of £65 million. Inspectors and the Welsh government both agree that this has been a resounding success in terms of what we do, our standards and our financial investments and performance.

I don’t think mergers in Wales are quite over. We now have a mix of arrangements: seven enlarged general FE institutions (FEIs); three FEIs that are wholly owned subsidiaries of universities; two small specialist institutions; and two medium-sized FEIs that haven’t merged. The average size of institutions in Wales is bigger than in England, but there is still a wide spread.

The voluntary approach has meant that some mergers are suboptimal. With many universities in Wales also facing further financial challenges, there is scope and need for further vertical integration of higher education within and across institutions. There may also be more opportunities to collaborate across the Wales-England border.

I’ve been surprised at the lack of mergers and appetite for reconfiguration from within English FE over the past decade. This has now changed, of course, but I do think that an opportunity was missed over a period of much capital investment, as this was not contingent on changing to develop a more strategic FE offer in the English regions. As a result, many English colleges are not only too small (and often shrinking) during an era of financial challenges, but are left with estates that are recently built, underused and often not fit for purpose – not to mention large mortgages.

Cross-border cooperation

Cambria is based in a relatively strong economic cross-border region, on the fringes of the Northern Powerhouse. Our focus is increasingly on skills and learning for employment. I chair the local Deeside Enterprise Zone, which borders the Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and which in turn abuts the Marches and Worcestershire LEPs. These regions are in the second wave of area reviews.

The reviews consider issues in adjoining LEPs. It would therefore seem sensible for those area reviews that border Wales or Scotland not to limit their task within national boundaries. The needs of learners, communities and employers in cross-border areas must come first. This should happen in the case of the Cheshire and Warrington LEP area, within which Coleg Cambria operates and has good links with neighbouring English FEIs and universities.

Avoiding change will only put off the inevitable; funding and financial challenges are likely to continue for all UK colleges for the foreseeable future. I firmly believe that merging colleges to create ambitious, large, strategically located and shaped organisations that are robust and partnership-orientated is the way forward.

We are not sitting back at Cambria. In August, we will be opening a new sixth-form centre, linked to the closure of five school sixth forms. We also have aspirations to deliver significantly more HE, and to revolutionise the way that we engage with employers to give them the skills they need. We’re up for it – are you?

David Jones is principal and chief executive of Coleg Cambria @DavidJCambria

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