Principal questions local merger

Two Midland colleges planning to merge have been accused of “ignoring” guidance from Skills Minister Matthew Hancock.

Stourbridge and Birmingham Metropolitan Colleges are set to become one institution with the 12,500-student Stourbridge’s property, rights and liabilities transferring to Birmingham Met, which had 26,000-plus learners two years ago.

The proposals had triggered a letter from Mr Hancock to David Beasley, clerk at Stourbridge, which is in the borough of Dudley.

But a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said there had been a constructive response and that the merger now had the minister’s blessing.

“The corporation has gone through the proper process and undertaken a college structure and prospects appraisal as set out in New Challenges, New Chances,” said the spokesperson.

However, Dudley College principal Lowell Williams (pictured), who has previously questioned the need for the merger, criticised the move.

He said many in the sector would be “surprised” the corporation of Stourbridge College had issued a dissolution order on the strength of the process it followed.

“The consultation response document does now provide some further information on the plans for Stourbridge post-dissolution — information that really would have been more helpful in the initial consultation document,” he said.

“But the process through which this decision has been reached still seems weak.”

He added: “The minister called for a ‘meaningful’, ‘open’ and ‘competitive’ process especially ‘should one of the options involve dissolution of the college’. This advice appears to have been ignored.

“The consultation response document does make reference to a ‘range of discussions with potential partners’ but the nature and status of these discussions are unclear. Some appear to be little more than informal exchanges rather than more formal approaches authorised by the corporation, which would be anticipated in the circumstances.

“Certainly the ‘open and competitive process’ the Secretary of State envisaged is missing. Sadly, the decision to go ahead with the dissolution of Stourbridge College, in this manner, may reflect badly on the sector as a whole.

“I’m guessing the Secretary of State has already directed civil servants to rewrite the rules on merger and dissolution, putting into place statutory requirements to curb some of our sector’s hard-won freedoms.

“Not surprisingly so, as many, like myself, would question whether this dissolution is an appropriate exercise of the freedoms recently bestowed on colleges.”

A spokesperson for the two colleges reissued a statement from last week and declined to comment further.

The statement read: “Both corporations have worked closely with BIS outlining the rationale for the merger and the many benefits it will bring to local learners, employers and the wider community.

“All the requirements have been met and we are now looking forward to delivering education and training to serve the needs of our communities.”

A BIS spokesperson said: “There are no plans to remove the freedoms granted in the Education Act 2011. The minister has made clear to all colleges that he expects them to follow the proper process.”