The University of Staffordshire announced exploratory amalgamation talks with Newcastle-under-Lyme College this week, writes Alison Utley.
The negotiations, which could affect the education of more than 20,000 students, are progressing rapidly and mirror a growing number of merger discussions between colleges and universities around the country.
Mike McConville, principal of Newcastle College, said a merger would bring advantages to students and staff of both institutions and stressed that the motive was not financial gain.
If the talks were successful he said the college was likely to become a further education school of Staffordshire University. Its students would then be guaranteed places on university courses provided they held appropriate entry qualifications.
Staff in turn would have access to university facilities and the option to work at a higher level than at present. Mr McConville, who will retire before the merger goes ahead, said any academic staff savings would be minimal.
The Further Education Funding Council is officially neutral on mergers between colleges and universities, although it does stress a responsibility to prevent "mission drift" and to ensure adequate FE provision across all the regions.
New guidelines will be published this year reflecting the expected tide of merger proposals straddling the two sectors.
To date there have been no full mergers between universities and "generalist" FE colleges but talks are also under way at Derby University and UCE in Birmingham, both of which are planning multiple college mergers.
In Yorkshire, Leeds Metropolitan University is working towards merger with nearby Airedale and Wharfedale College. Sceptics fear that FE will lose its identity as more powerful universities takeover and swamp smaller institutions. There are also concerns that mergers may restrict student choice and reduce the number of lecturers' jobs.
* In a separate move Staffordshire University is proposing to establish a university college at the present site of Lichfield College.
Along with partner Tamworth College the university is seeking European Union backing to develop the scheme which will use the Internet and other information technologies to bring further and higher education services in to South Staffordshire.
A range of part-time courses from National Vocational Qualification up to degree, postgraduate and professional level will be on offer through a mix of traditional lectures and tutorials and individual computer-based learning.
Hilary Chilton, Staffordshire University's coordinating officer, said: "This will give south Staffordshire its own higher education institution and local people and businesses an accessible link in to all the education, training and advice expertise that the partner institutions have to offer."