Derby University has been holding secret merger talks with five neighbouring further education colleges which could lead to a unique post-16 system for 50,000 students by 1998.
The plans have taken the Further Education Funding Council for England by surprise. Although it has not yet been consulted formally, funding council officers have been visiting the colleges issuing "warnings", according to one principal.
Derby University vice chancellor Roger Waterhouse said the behind-the-scenes negotiations were initiated by the colleges rather than the university. "The view was taken early on that we held a common educational agenda," Professor Waterhouse said. "We are conceiving this as a regional network which could either be a loose federation or a full merger. I think merger is the only realistic way forward."
The university is holding talks with Derby Tertiary College, Mackworth College, High Peak College in Buxton, South East Derbyshire College, Burton upon Trent College and Broomfield College. Nearby Derby Wilmorton College is refusing to take part in the talks because it fears being swamped by the more powerful university.
If successful the move looks set to become the first full FE/HE merger, although several other universities are talking to colleges about merger possibilities.
Professor Waterhouse said only a large-scale merger could provide the necessary authority to form a continuous post-school education system for the region. "Our motive is to expand and unless we are a single legal entity we wouldn't have the ability to plan for expansion," he said. The door was "ajar" he added if Wilmorton changed its mind.
He said the merger would provide the critical progression from further to higher education which was being hampered for full-timers because of restricted student numbers.
However the funding council appears uneasy with the proposal. Alan Harrison, principal of Mackworth College, said he had been surprised to receive a warning from the funding council concerning the possibility of mission drift if merger went ahead. "I am not afraid of merger and if we go ahead there will be no question of mission drift," Mr Harrison said. "This would create a regional framework of credit accumulation which is about meeting the Government's stated aim of parity of esteem. FE provision would in fact be expanded," he pledged.
The funding council said its criteria for approving FE/HE mergers centred on its legal duty to ensure there were no gaps in FE provision. Earlier this year three art and design colleges and an agricultural college merged with their local university but the council said there had not yet been any generalist college/university mergers.