Old rivals in the Northeast are sinking their differences and embarking on joint ventures in a bid to make an international impact. In our latest regional focus, THES reporters examine an outbreak of collaboration
It is not just the river Tyne that separates Newcastle and Gateshead's further education colleges. A mere two miles apart, the Tyneside colleges have a tradition of community rivalry, intensified by increasingly desperate competition for the Further Education Funding Council's cash.
But this month the fight became too much. In a surprise move expected to set a precedent across the sector, the white flags were brought out and the arch rivals began feasibility studies with a view to an amalgamation.
"Many have said that our two institutions are separated by a series of bridges," jokes Mike Rowarth, Principal of Newcastle College. "If we merged we wouldn't have to spend so much of our marketing budgets having a good crack at each other."
But his main point is serious. "We're looking to the future of further education. We're in a highly competitive framework where you have to look for growth, but we've both been fishing from the same limited pool. You don't want to collaborate for fear of losing your edge, but that negative philosophy is difficult to sustain when funding is going down and down."
The feasibility study will be complete in June, when the colleges will seek FEFCE approval, but both are confident there will be an amalgamation by September 1998. With a Pounds 45 million turnover, 20,000 part-time and 7,000 full-time students, the amalgamated institution would rival any in Europe, Mr Rowarth claims.
"This is proactive. It is not a rescue act. It's easy for it to be misinterpreted, but ultimately we have to convince the FEFCE a merger will not mean reduced provision in the region and a lack of competition will not mean reduced quality."
Newcastle College has admitted there will be some "estates rationalisation", but both campuses are expected to remain in place.
"For either of us to retreat would send the wrong message to the communities," Mr Rowarth says. While job cuts are expected, he insists there will be no compulsory redundancies.
Gateshead College principal Chris Hughes is heading the initiative and is widely expected to take the leadership of the amalgamated institution as Rowarth prepares for retirement.
"It is a natural alliance," says Mr Hughes who has big plans for the future. "If the amalgamation does happen it's not simply going to be a big college. It will be significant in the post-Dearing environment in its relationship with the university sector.
"There are clearly thoughts about the regionalisation of higher education and using a localised approach to developing solutions to problems and creating strategies for effective lifetime learning. The development potential with the right university partners is enormous," says Mr Hughes.