College merger tweet shock

Bosses at a college in the Midlands claim they found out about two competitors’ multi-million pound merger plan — which is being investigated over procedural concerns — thanks to a local newspaper “tweet”.

Plans for Stourbridge and Birmingham Metropolitan Colleges to form “one of the largest and most significant further education providers in the country” allegedly came to the attention of Sandwell College via social media.

The plans are the subject of a Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) investigation “to establish if appropriate processes have been followed” and have been described as “rushed” by the University and College Union (UCU).

We became aware of the proposed merger via a tweet by a local newspaper during the Christmas holidays.”

Dudley College has also questioned whether the merger was “necessarily in the best interest of local learners”, and the Black Country local enterprise partnership (LEP) has called for more clarification on the proposals.

Meanwhile, Sandwell College — no more than 13 miles from Stourbridge or Birmingham Met — put together its response on the plan having, it claimed, having learned about it on Twitter.

A spokesperson said: “We became aware of the proposed merger via a tweet by a local newspaper during the Christmas holidays. We had not received any notification of an intent, or need, to merge prior to that.”

The proposals would dissolve the 12,500-student Stourbridge College on May 31, with its property, rights and liabilities transferring to Birmingham Met, which had more than 26,000 learners two years ago. A six-week formal consultation on the plan, which the colleges say would create “an enhanced learning experience and increased employment opportunities for students,” ended on Wednesday, February 27.

A joint statement from Stourbridge, which is in the borough of Dudley, and Birmingham Met said they had followed procedure “in accordance with the recommended guidelines and relevant regulations”. The plan has already won the approval of the Birmingham LEP.

But Nick Varney, UCU regional official, said: “Questions have to be asked about how the colleges’ management have arrived at this rushed merger.

“We would like to see the two go back to the drawing board, but this time be open with information and give staff, students and anyone else affected the opportunity for genuine consultation.”

Just last month FE Minister Matthew Hancock issued guidance to all principals and governors on such merger plans, without referring to either college.

A spokesperson for Dudley College called on the colleges to follow the Minister’s directions “more closely”.

He said: “It’s difficult to understand from the consultation document, as published, why this merger is required and how it is necessarily in the best interest of local learners.

“We would certainly encourage the two colleges to follow more closely direction to the sector.

All processes and due diligence have been carried out under the guidance of our independent professional adviser”

“Many stakeholders in Dudley, including Dudley College, have called for greater consultation and an open and transparent process to select a merger partner, if the dissolution of Stourbridge College really is required.”

A spokesperson for the Black Country LEP, which covers Stourbridge, said: “We would seek clarification in certain areas relating to the proposed merger, particularly its aims and objectives, the process of consultation, demonstration of economic benefit and lack of guarantees regarding the future of Black Country facilities.

“Having sought this clarification, we would wish to work closely with the new college, should the merger go ahead.”

Stourbridge and Birmingham Met’s joint statement said: “The board and senior team at Stourbridge have been considering various strategic options for a considerable time.

“All processes and due diligence have been carried out under the guidance of our independent professional advisers in accordance with the recommended guidelines and relevant regulations.

“We have been in direct dialogue with all interested parties which include our recognised unions, parents, students and businesses. The feedback from the majority of them has been very positive.”

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Editorial : Free to ask permission

Since coming to power, the coalition government has been at pains to introduce a range of FE policies that it says give colleges ‘freedoms and flexibilities’.

And in his speech in January, FE Minister Matthew Hancock told college governors: “We removed a plethora of controls on college corporations to give colleges the freedom and flexibility to respond.”

However, it is clear that governors are perhaps not as free from the politicians as you might think.

For example, last August when Lewisham College and Southwark College merged, Matthew Hancock was required to approve the college’s new name (LeSoCo).

More recently, BIS has been investigating whether government consultation and competitive tendering procedures for mergers have been followed by Stourbridge College and Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Clearly accountability is key, but these two recent examples suggest the government has further to go if its actions are to match its words.

Ultimately, colleges governors have a responsibility to follow the rules, so FE Week will be watching Twitter and the case of Stourbridge College and Birmingham Metropolitan College with interest.

Nick Linford, editor of FE Week