The Scottish Office moved to control events last week by issuing guidance to colleges on how merger proposals would be assessed. Successful bids would have to be cleared by the Secretary of State.
The principals of Glasgow College of Building and Printing, Glasgow College of Food Technology, Stow College, the College of Nautical Studies and the College of Commerce have all agreed a final consultants brief for an "option appraisal" on future co-operation.
A merger of all five is thought unlikely, but various combinations and linkages could emerge. The first three institutions are all affiliated to Glasgow Caledonian University and therefore have a closer relationship. But the food, building and nautical colleges have had their Scottish Office grants cut this year by the maximum of 4 to 5 per cent, a total of Pounds 600,000.
The colleges are particularly wary about confirming their intentions towards each other and Douglas Harrison, chairman of the Stow board, would only say: The whole exercise is being approached with an absolutely open mind by the college principals and chairs."
Barony College is also "actively seeking partners". David Rose, the college's principal, said he would not be drawn on his preferences although the nearby but larger Dumfries and Galloway College is unlikely to be a suitor.
The Scottish Office's guidance stresses the importance of a full investigation by college boards of all alternatives to merger. If the educational, financial and management benefits are likely to be outweighed by the cost and effort, approval will not be forthcoming.
The need for a slimmed-down FE sector was outlined to college principals and chairs in Crieff last week (page 26) by Rae Angus, the principal of Aberdeen College. Mr Angus suggested that Pounds 20 million could be saved to reinvest in FE if Scotland had just 13 colleges. That assumed unit costs similar to Aberdeen's which is itself the product of a merger between three colleges.
"Little in the past two years has altered my view that our service simply has too many independent colleges for what we do and for what we are expected to do," Mr Angus said.