Guessing game of how many colleges

December 12, 1997

THE NEWS that the proposed triple merger to form Derbyshire Regional University has collapsed after approval was given by the Further Education Funding Council goes to show what fragile things mergers are.

In further and higher education, at least, more merger proposals fail than succeed and often after protracted and expensive negotiations. If we are to achieve fewer but stronger further education colleges, and all through further and higher education institutions, it is time to recognise that the market is not working.

One of the reasons for this is that the FEFC recognises only two routes to a merger: dissolution of both bodies and the creation of a new one, or acquisition of one by the other. The underlying process for such mergers involves four stages: the gaining of conviction by the parties; the negotiation of terms, consultation and due diligence studies; the submission of the proposal to the funding council; and, finally, the gaining of approval from the council and the secretary of state.

This is a process built more for bureaucratic robustness than entrepreneurial speed. It needs a radical rethink if we are to achieve, by the turn of the century, fewer but larger colleges linked a la Dearing and Kennedy to regional higher education providers. Meanwhile it would help if those upstairs - in the government or the funding councils - gave us a clue about the desired size and shape of the system by the millennium. This is not a call for Soviet-style planning but the market needs parameters. To put it another way, those who govern and manage further and higher education and those who study in it, would, in the wake of Dearing and Kennedy, like a few questions answered. Is there a golden number of further education colleges if the current number of around 450 is too many? There have been various estimates ranging from 200 to 300.

It is unlikely that closure of provision, however economically challenged, will be politically acceptable, so can we expect new guidance and more steer concerning which institutions might merge, with others and by what mechanism? Federations are easier than mergers - will they be blessed? What type of collaboration might exist between universities and colleges and what funding regime is appropriate to these developments? Not all universities can be regional ones in the Dearing sense. Who will decide and what effects will such a decision have on the character of the institution in terms of the learning/ research debate?

These are teasing questions but essential if we recognise than new levels of participation by fee-paying students will be possible only if we abandon the notion that most students will leave home as a consequence of a decision to study. And if we add to that the onward march of technology, "home based" can take on a new meaning. It is no longer necessary for the provider to be in the same country let alone the same town or to be an educational institution in the normal sense. The new government does not have a lot of time to put all this right. I feel a green paper coming on. It should be part philosophy and part planning. What about Thinking Further, Thinking Higher?

Keith Scribbins is a consultantin education governance and management.

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