Further education colleges are rushing into mergers seeking a "quick fix" that is not a realistic solution to their problems, according to new government research.
The Department for Education and Skills commissioned researchers from the University of Warwick to evaluate the success of mergers at 17 different FE colleges between 1996 and 2000. Their final report concludes that FE colleges frequently underestimate the potential problems they would face in combining with another institution. All of the case study colleges underestimated the length of time it would take to complete a merger.
"All the evidence supports the view that mergers are no quick fix," the report says. "There appear to be few short-term benefits over and above those of saving a college and keeping jobs."
The Association of Colleges agreed that some merging FE colleges had encountered problems that they had not anticipated. But it insisted the colleges themselves should not be blamed.
John Brennan, director of FE development at the AoC, said: "A lot of people have not had much experience of this sort of process before. Many put a tremendous amount of work and effort in, but it is a common experience that the merger takes much longer than they expected." He is keen for colleges to pool their experiences in this area to establish more realistic expectations and predict problems.
The research shows long-term benefits to the mergers, including widened participation, new building, improved accommodation and curriculum development. But it warns there are few financial benefits, despite considerable costs.
It stresses the Further Education Funding Council would need to provide financial support for merged institutions in the future.
A second piece of research concludes that an FE college that is struggling financially should not automatically turn to a merger with a higher education institution to survive. The research, which was commissioned by the DFES and conducted by external consultants, says other models might be more effective in protecting FE provision in the longer term. In particular, it recommends that the college should turn to the Learning and Skills Council for interim support while it takes action to improve its finances. The consultants found little evidence for widening of access as a result of a merger between FE and HE colleges, although this was a common aim. They also found there was some resistance among students to studying for a foundation degree at the FE college arm of the merged institution, rather than at the main university.
Both reports agree that culture clashes are a significant - if often overlooked - problem in merged institutions. "There are cultural challenges and difficulties of bringing together very different staff, structures and conditions of service," the consultants say.
The government should increase the value of education maintenance allowances, intended to persuade young people from poor families to stay in education after the age of 16, says the AoC.
An analysis of pilot projects shows that the most popular project paid 16 to 19-year-olds up to £40 a week. The least popular gave transport cost discounts or involved parents claiming the allowance on their children's behalf. Nottingham and Oldham have been piloting the maximum option, under which students whose families earn £30,000 or less are eligible. Just over 21,000 were eligible and 86 per cent claimed the allowances.