By Ian Toone, Director of Policy and Research
Since the introduction of the Education Act 2011, mergers between further education (FE) colleges have become much easier. However, although several mergers have since taken place, not all of them have been successful.
K College, for example, a merger between two Kent colleges, lasted for only three years before it dissolved, with a £16 million deficit. It seems that a merger is not necessarily a strategy for success.
Which factors determine whether a merger is more or less likely to work?
Care needs to be taken when a merger appears to be driven primarily by financial considerations rather than educational factors. Whilst recognising that a merger of a failing college with a thriving neighbour may often appear to be an obvious choice, success may only be realised over the longer term (especially as regards financial benefits, as the costs involved in the merger process should not be underestimated).
In the short term, mergers tend to create instability, which, in turn, affects quality of teaching. Research indicates that larger colleges do not inevitably provide more effective education. In particular, when a larger college takes over a smaller one, this can easily result in asset-stripping and a general loss of provision and social cohesion, to the detriment of the community in which the smaller college was situated.
Mergers are often thought to facilitate the creation of economies of scale, producing the critical mass required to provide access to provision which might otherwise be lost. However, if this entails centralising provision on one campus of a multi-site college, learners who live nearer the other campuses may be disenfranchised. This is especially relevant in the case of learners who fall into the NEET (not in education, employment or training) category, as such learners may lack the means and motivation to travel outside of their local areas in order to access education and training. Mergers may make it difficult to maintain a broad range of provision at all sites, and may also weaken the extent to which provision can be developed and delivered locally in response to local needs.
Another consideration is the cultural challenge of bringing together two (or more) different groups of staff and students. Culture clash can be a significant issue, although it is often underestimated. The problem is more likely to occur in mixed type mergers, such as a general FE college merging with a sixth form college, or a merger between FE and HE (higher education) institutions.
All mergers need to be carefully planned, with realistic risk assessments and business plans drawn up at an early stage, a strong commitment from senior management and governors, and a clear post-merger strategy. Full and meaningful consultation needs to take place with relevant stakeholders, acknowledging the requirement to resolve potential conflicts between stakeholder needs and expectations.
Thought should also be given to alternative options which may provide many of the same benefits without incurring the costs and disruptions often caused by a full merger. Alternatives may include collaborations, federations, shared services, outsourcing and restructuring.
All mergers have their own unique set of circumstances, issues and local dynamics. All the advantages and disadvantages need to be carefully considered rather than assuming that the merger will be an automatic success.