You can always tell when things are getting serious: men and women of influence start writing open letters to men and women of power. Hence, I read with interest the open letter one of my colleague writers of this column, Michael Scott, pro-vice chancellor at De Montfort, wrote in this column a few weeks ago to David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council.
Michael rightly warns David that the current pattern of merger proposals could lead to piecemeal provision and an enormous variety of patterns of governance. To put it another way, what will determine the size and shape of the further education system by the millennium will be the decisions now being taken by four parties: principals and governors who seek or resist merger proposals; the further education regional committees who vet them; the FEFC national merger committee, which approves them; and the secretary of state who encourages them and, ultimately, gives permission for them.
It is true that the FEFC is more directive, nowadays, and is using specific grants to colleges - on a sliding scale - to meet the costs of new alliances from collaboration through to merger. This is planning of sorts. Suddenly the theory has become that all mergers are good (because they reduce complexity and cost and make for comprehensive provision) and some are better than others (mergers with universities needing particular scrutiny). The problem is in these premises. Mergers do not save money - they make for greater monopoly and hence the ability to increase profits by increasing price. Further, they do not necessarily make for wider, better provision. Unless some guarantees are written in, it is just as likely as not that some provision will be shed, rationalised or consolidated on one site. This is the essential problem with the idea of university/college mergers. Unless the college is very big and powerful, the likelihood is that parts of its mission that do not meet the higher education mission will disappear after merger.
The question is not whether or not colleges should merge with universities, but which ones, in what way and with what guarantees attached.
I agree with the call for more explicit planning but not with the kind of plan Michael proposes. He argues against large further education institutions (inevitable if any two colleges merge together). He fears they will be anonymous. It can be argued, by contrast, that only large further education colleges, modelled on American community colleges or, in Europe, the Dutch regional colleges, can be of sufficient weight to have collaborations with universities based on parity. The other fallacy is that the regional university can provide quality control and financial management for its further education members. I think most of us who have spent long years in learning how to manage and govern the unique further education institutions that incorporation has created, prefer the FEFC idea of self-accrediting institutions. Again, a large, self-accrediting, college can come to the merger negotiating table with something like equal esteem.
Finally, Michael rails against the likelihood of local governing boards frustrating a national plan. What national plan? Why should governing bodies of local community colleges be any more likely to make the frustrating decision than either FEFC officials or the governors of a community university?
Keith Scribbins is a consultant in education management and governance.