Mergers in times of emergency

April 19, 1996

There can be few industries in which both the employers' bodies and the trade unions are simultaneously contemplating their futures. Further education is one of them. John Akker (THES, March 29) shows how dearly Natfhe regards the need for change - a full merger with the Association of University Teachers or even a federation involving Unison.

In the same week the consultation between the Association for Colleges and the Colleges Employers Forum and their members ended. That consultation was about what kind of body should succeed the ACF and CEF via a merger. And, to make the menu even more varied, there is the predicted rush to institutional mergers between colleges and, perhaps, between universities and colleges.

The simplest situation is the one facing the employers. There is such overwhelming support for a merger between the further education sector's industrial relations and public relations bodies that it is tempting to ask who set up two separate bodies in the first place. Further education clearly needs one body to trade with the Department for Education and Employment, the funding councils and the Treasury.

There are clear frailties in expecting colleges to join two bodies (three if you include the surviving regional bodies). Separating industrial relations from public relations is like giving the devil all the good tunes.

It is also based on the naive hope that the media, students and the public at large - baffled by further education at the best of times - will bother to listen to two discordant voices. So, for the vast majority of us, the merger cannot come soon enough.

It looks like the new body will be called the Association of British Colleges, will be formed in the summer and have a board directly elected (by first-past-the-post voting) so as to produce six chairs of governors and six principals from England and representatives from Scotland, Wales and the sixth-form college sector.

The new body will have its work cut out. The straitened budgets of most colleges will not support a subscription hike and some will look, inevitably, for economies of scale. Against this, all subscription bodies know that a hand-to-mouth existence hardly ever achieves quality services or good decision-making. The unions can teach us a few painful lessons about that.

The body will need to spend to settle the contract dispute and regain respectable national bargaining and, most important, to fight for a bigger spend on education, particularly further education.

This will require, under any government, the confidence that further education can deliver the goods - higher participation, higher retention, higher quality, relevance and responsiveness. It will also need to be clear that it (and not just the funding councils) speaks for the system to the Treasury.

And to start where I began, we can no longer be sure what the "system" will be in even a few years time. Can the further/higher education boundary survive, let alone the schools/further education boundary survive, in the face of all the proposals for reform and experiments being based on them? Or are we beginning a time of merger mania? What is to stop the 21st century opening with a couple of hundred colleges, each linked to a university, having staff employed by one employer, creating one employers' organisation that faces across the table one union (or a federal union) for all grades of staff in all post-school institutions?

Keith Scribbins is chair of the Colleges Employers Forum and of the governors of South Bristol College.

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