The future of its 16 colleges was finally settled as the Belfast-based Department for Employment and Learning announced its plans after a controversial review of further education.
Angela Smith, Northern Ireland's employment and learning minister, said:
"The department has been encouraged to see the considerable progress being made by further education colleges since their incorporation in 1998.
However, there is scope for even more improvement through greater strategic planning."
The review of FE started in 2001, the same year colleges in England found themselves with a new paymaster, the Learning and Skills Council, although funding in the province flows directly from government to colleges, an arrangement which is expected to continue.
While proponents of merger say it will lead to reduced duplication of managerial costs, and make colleges more responsive, critics say any potential savings remain unquantified.
Natfhe, the lecturers' union, which has a regional office covering Northern Ireland, is opposed to merger.
With Northern Ireland under direct rule during the suspension of the assembly, the union argues the changes effectively amount to the civil servants, rather than politicians, taking control of FE policy.
It claims job-losses are inevitable among college staff.
Jim McKeown, Natfhe's regional official, said: "This is something that the civil servants have been wanting for over 10 years. These proposals are based solely on the notion that bigger is better and take no account of the human consequences of what is ahead or the fact that further education is a community service delivered locally. These proposals are really about the civil servants taking control of the sector."