Shot-gun weddings or happy marriages? Throughout the country further and higher education institutions are embracing. THES reporters interview the prospective partners.
The first full merger between a university and a further education college could be in place next summer if plans by Leeds Metropolitan University come off, writes Alison Utley.
This would put Leeds Metropolitan just ahead of Derby University, which has also lodged proposals with the Further Education Funding Council to merge with two local colleges by September next year.
Leeds Metropolitan has set its sights on nearby Harrogate College having dropped earlier plans to tie up with Airedale and Wharfedale College near Leeds. Both colleges are facing an uncertain future and are struggling with debilitating debts.
Harrogate decided to approach LMU when it became apparent that its existence as an independent institution was precarious. The timing was spot on since LMUvice chancellor Leslie Wagner had been considering for some time how to spread the university's influence to other parts of the Yorkshire and Humber region.
"Our mission is to create a university of applied education," Professor Wagner said. "We are not looking for takeovers and we are not into empire-building." Intense discussions have been on going for some weeks now and full merger proposals should be on the table this summer. The FEFC will consider whether existing further education opportunities will be weakened by any merger.
Professor Wagner stressed that further education provision would be expanded and diversified and in addition the university would develop higher education in Harrogate and the surrounding area. The college recruits from a 750 square mile area in North Yorkshire covering towns like Knaresborough, Ripon and Pateley Bridge where no higher education exists. Irrespective of the merger, new degree courses will begin in Harrogate this September.
This is one aspect which worries the lecturers' union Natfhe. While expressing some cautious optimism about the proposed merger Tim Rowley, Natfhe branch chair and head of sociology at Harrogate, said there were some potential time bombs which needed to be addressed urgently.
"We are still waiting for details about the terms and conditions our lecturers will get," said Mr Rowley. He questioned the fairness of expecting lecturers to do higher education work on further education terms, which mean lower salaries and shorter holidays.
The consultation document put out by the two institutions states: "It is not anticipated that academic and support staffing levels will be directly affected as a result of the merger."
The private recruitment agency Education Lecturing Services will be brought into the college to handle staffing and this has also made academics there uncomfortable. "This leaves us all with an air of uncertainty and must be a threat to quality, standards and consistency," he said. "We are also concerned that perceptions that the college is in trouble have damaged recruitment."
* AIREDALE and Wharfedale College is seeking a partner in order to tackle a mounting financial deficit and avoid possible closure, writes Alan Thomson.
The 10,000-student college has sent preliminary letters to all colleges and universities within a 20-mile radius hoping that a merger deal can be reached with one or more institution.
Acting chief executive Martin Millgate said that the college faced a bleak future if it opted to go it alone. He said it had an accrued deficit as well as one of the lowest levels of funding of any college.
Mr Millgate said: "If merger talks collapsed this year then it would be difficult to struggle on although we are not talking about anything as drastic as sudden collapse or closure."
College managers say that the FEFC has responded favourably to the merger proposals. A letter asking institutions to register their formal interest in merger with the college is due to be sent out within the next week.
* Plymouth University and its 20 regional partner further education colleges are poised to put their relationship on "a firmer legal basis", writes Tony Tysome.
John Bull, vice chancellor of Plymouth, has likened talks with partner colleges to discussions taking place between Bath University and the University of the West of England in Bristol over a merger.
But Professor Bull ruled out a full merger with partner institutions, which he said needed to keep "a degree of autonomy".
Instead, there might be a move towards closer collaboration which could involve cross-membership of governing bodies and joint ownership of holding companies, he said. "We already have a very close relationship with our partner colleges. The question we are asking now is whether we should put that on a firmer legal basis."
Professor Bull said talks with partner colleges were taking place in anticipation of possible changes which might emerge from the Dearing review of higher education, including a stronger regional focus for planning and funding.
The university has partnerships with all further education colleges in the Cornwall peninsula, accrediting higher education courses attended by 3,000 students and providing support with a budget of Pounds 2.5 million a year.
Ian Tunbridge, director of academic partnerships at the university, said courses run in partnership with colleges were already seen and funded collectively as a ghost faculty of the university. "We are in discussions to ensure we can move in whatever direction Dearing and the Government indicate," he said.
But Paul Taylor, vice principal of Plymouth College of Further Education, was cautious about "any move to merge the identity of the college and the university".
He said: "While we might ask to what extent we want to maintain our autonomy, the relationship works well at the moment, and so we may equally ask whether there is a need for a more formalised arrangement."