Beware the shotgun merger

November 7, 1997

On the face of it university/further education college mergers are attractive propositions. They offer the prospect of comprehensive, inclusive institutions for tomorrow's students - home based, from a wide age range and wanting learning and retraining opportunities, especially through new technology. To staff and managers in further education, mergers with universities offer the dubious benefits of trading up. To the university the attraction is a ready supply of students, a bigger empire and the acquisition of cheap buildings.

Until recently three things have stood in the way of such mergers. First, the funding councils have not been keen and Sir William Stubbs' admonition of "mission drift" still rings in the ears of some principals who were tempted by offers to become professors. Second, the funding systems do not offer encouragement. Mergers within the further education sector are often attractive because the vagaries of funding can make the whole worth more than the sum of the parts. Not so when a university acquires further education courses - indeed, continued funding of the further education element might be at risk.

Third, while in the merged institution some subject areas might be offered from the lowest to the highest level, subjects which have not been offered formerly in the university stick out like a sore thumb and become something of an embarrassment to the university administration. From the funding council's point of view there are real dangers that the eventual curriculum offer will be a function of university interest rather than community need.

If mergers were easy and guaranteed the continuation of broad based, non-advanced further education in a locality, everyone would want one. But this is a pipe dream, an idea before its time perhaps. In reality university/further education mergers are likely to mean asset stripping at worst and contraction at best.

In all cities and most counties there is a university. Some are genuinely national institutions and will draw their students from the nation as a whole. If one of these proposes a merger, beware, asset stripping is likely to be afoot. Others are community institutions destined to offer a primarily local service to industry and commerce and the immediate community. If one of these seeks terms, a further education college might wish to respond positively.

Looking at it this way the litmus test might be the proportion of home-based students at the university and the degree to which teaching and learning, rather than research, is the corner-stone of the university's mission. Another test might be the degree to which the university is prepared to assimilate governors from the college into the university governing council.

The face of further education is changing fast. Dearing and Kennedy recognised this and neither called for the growth of higher education by the acquisition of further education. Quite the reverse: both reports and, apparently, the new government, welcome stron-ger further education institutions, in partnership with a range of higher education providers.

To survive a merger with the culture of the college intact, the college needs to be big, strong (financially and otherwise) and skilled in managing joint provision, student progression routes and access schemes. Then the difference between partnership and merger might be a minor one.

Where these features do not apply, college governors need to beware. Their job is to protect and extend further education in their area, not to trade up in the vain hope that when they are gone the governors of the university will protect the further education interest. Meanwhile, partnerships are safer and like a long courtship can lead to better marriages!

Keith Scribbins is a consultant in education management and governance.

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