Two colleges in the Midlands have been told by FE minister Matthew Hancock to go back to the drawing board with their plans to merge.
Proposals by Stourbridge and Birmingham Metropolitan to form “one of the largest and most significant further education providers in the country” have been investigated by Mr Hancock’s officials at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to “establish if appropriate processes have been followed”.
A six-week formal consultation on the plans, which the colleges claimed would create “an enhanced learning experience and increased employment opportunities for students”, ended on Wednesday, February 27.
However, BIS has now sent a letter, seen by FE Week, to David Beasley, clerk at Stourbridge College, in Dudley.
In it, Mr Hancock said: “I am not convinced by the rationale set out in your consultation document that this would represent the best outcomes for learners in your local area.
“Nor does your consultation document provide assurance to me that the corporation has undertaken the open and transparent processes that we would expect in terms of analysing needs, engaging with stakeholders and, critically, securing the most effective partnerships and delivery option(s) for the future.”
He added: “I would request that the corporation review its processes and rectify any shortfall, including seeking potential partners through open and inclusive processes.”
The colleges said they would continue with the proposals, “liaising closely with BIS as well as other key stakeholders”.
The University and College Union said the plans were “rushed”, while bosses at Sandwell College — no more than 13 miles from Stourbridge or Birmingham Met — claimed they found out about the proposal through a local newspaper tweet.
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), which covers Stourbridge, wanted more clarification on the plans.
Just last month the minister issued guidance to all principals and governors on such merger plans, without referring to either college.
The proposals — backed by the Birmingham LEP — would dissolve the 12,500-student Stourbridge College on May 31, with its property, rights and liabilities transferring to Birmingham Met, which, two years ago, had more than 26,000 learners.
A joint statement from the two colleges said: “Throughout the consultation period, both colleges have been in direct dialogue with all interested parties … and the feedback from the majority of them has been very positive.
“Both colleges continue to liaise closely with BIS, as well as other key stakeholders, and will continue to work with the department and take on board any advice they offer to us.”
The statement said that Stourbridge had been considering various strategic options for a “considerable” time.
“As one of the first colleges proposing to merge under the government’s commitment to freedoms and flexibilities for the further education sector, the college has been careful to ensure that all processes and due diligence were strictly observed,” it continued.
“Along with increased investment to improve facilities for students and staff, the colleges will offer enhanced opportunities for work experience and jobs, opening up progression routes to higher education and employment, while at the same time meeting the needs of local employers.
“Both colleges believe a merger between two very successful organisations will be a significant development for the region. By working together they will be able to offer a wider choice of curriculum and provide increased opportunities for learners and increased competitiveness for businesses in the region.”