K College was created from a merger of South Kent College and West Kent College. It is now being broken up and sold off. Interim principal Phil Frier explains why two shouldn’t always become one
I have never been keen on mergers. I have been involved with two and on the edge of another, and they don’t seem to deliver the solution that many hope for.
The problem lies in the assumption that a change in structure and an increase in size will lead not only to more sustainable and financially viable colleges, but also to higher quality teaching and learning, and improved student success rates.
Don’t get me wrong, there is evidence that some merged colleges have done better than their antecedents, but only where there has been an understanding of the need to ensure the ‘human-sized’ elements and underlying educational focus remain.
Mergers have often been the result of the egocentric ambitions of Skills Council chief executives, and, more latterly, principals and chairs of governors, often driven by financial rather than educational motives.
Mergers don’t always bring financial efficiencies — in fact, many have increased costs without improving teaching and learning, as managers are distracted by setting up cross-college systems.
While there is nothing wrong with establishing common core values, standards and expectations, the drive to create the merged college often ignores the difference in local cultures and the need for college campuses to be rooted in their communities.
The need for local leadership is often ignored too, as the commitment to control from the centre takes hold.
Mergers are not the sole choice for failing colleges — new management models should lead to more imaginative solutions. We are a creative sector. Do we really need to fall back on to ageing corporate business models to solve our problems?
Even the word ‘merger’ is not helpful since it implies that the character and personality of the existing colleges will be merged to form a more androgynous corporate body.
The language of ‘merger’ in FE has also been devoid of creativity with its references to ‘type A or type B’ unions.
Come on guys, many of us are supposed to be a reasonably capable, intelligent group of baby boomers. For the sake of the current and, perhaps more importantly, future students, let’s try to find some solutions that are more educationally orientated, and more in harmony with people and with the local communities that colleges serve.
The strength of FE colleges has always been that we are in tune with the heartbeat of our towns and cities. Most technical colleges were developed by the local borough or town councils to serve local industry, facilitate local employment, and to provide opportunities for young people and older generations to discover the life-changing wonder of education and qualifications.
Isn’t it time we developed more innovative federal models of organisation that allow us to keep local contacts while still providing financial capacity, high quality facilities and a learner-centred focus.
In some ways, college merger is a bit like the old adage about money; it makes your life easier, but doesn’t necessarily make it better. An educational organisation should always focus on providing the best learning environment; for me that means learning in a well-resourced, supportive place with good teachers within a human-scale management structure, where locally based managers have the autonomy to make local decisions.
Some of the best organisations in the world recognise that they can be big enough to be financially viable, but small and human enough at the point of contact for the client. I am rather hoping that the dinosaur age of the one-dimensional merger debate is over.
Phil Frier, interim principal at K College, Kent
Want to read more? Chris Henwood looks at the broader picture on college mergers here