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Will it be wedding Bells in spring?

Paisley University and Bell College of Higher Education in Hamilton have kick-started their merger discussions, The TES Scotland has learnt.

Informal discussions have been proceeding for three years but stalled last November as Bell dealt with the retirement of its principal, concerns over quality issues and falling student numbers.

Bell's board of governors noted in September that the college was "often not the first choice" of students. It acknowledged increasing competition from both FE colleges and universities.

The arrival in July of Alex MacLennan as the new principal of Bell now assumes greater significance than appeared at the time when he took up his post after a brief tenure as principal of Ayr College. Prior to that, Mr MacLennan had been assistant principal at Paisley.

Bell has been working to reassure doubters that it is tackling its problems. Paisley meanwhile has given its backing to the merged institution having a new name.

Mr MacLennan told his board in September: "The college has suffered from a history of decline in its funding and missed out by not transferring to HE status at the same time as Napier and Glasgow Caledonian."

A spokesman for Paisley University said: "Both institutions recently reaffirmed a commitment to working towards merger and will now proceed to develop the business case in support of that objective." He expected "more material announcements in the coming months".

Bell and Paisley already have much in common - both are heavily involved in nursing studies and each has a presence at the Crichton University campus in Dumfries.

If the merger goes ahead, it will create a combined institution of 1,700 staff and 16,000 students on four campuses in the west and south-west of Scotland (Paisley also operates the campus on Ayr that was formerly home to Craigie College of Education).

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