A merger can be a trying and testing time, says Mike Hopkins. But do it right and you can be left with a leaner, more financially efficient operation with the same pool of students

During my 12 years as principal, South and City College Birmingham has been through two mergers: the first between the former South Birmingham College and City College Birmingham, and most recently with Bournville College.

Both mergers were model “B” – we took over the other colleges – and came about following financial difficulty within both.

Neither college could continue as they were, as technically they were insolvent. Neither was performing well and both were in bad shape educationally. They required serious improvement and there were no other realistic solutions.

Before our most recent merger, Bournville had become a failing college and was in Education Skills Funding Agency intervention. Now, just 15 months later, both South & City College Birmingham (now incorporating Bournville College) have been awarded a grade 2 Ofsted inspection result, achieving a “good” across all areas.

I’m proud to be at the forefront of this, and I believe the experience makes me able to understand fully how to bring about and get the best out of a college merger. They can be a trying and testing time for any institution, but with the right preparation and know-how, a merger can be a real success.

If done right, an institution can combine the best departments of each college and be left with a leaner, more financially efficient operation with the same pool of students, but without the need to build new facilities.

A merger can also offer a significant and positive cultural change, with happier staff and students.

The biggest issues I found were the significant government bureaucracy, financing and the major cost and time commitment involved. We have planned, managed and undertaken each merger ourselves, but it is still a drain on resource to do so.

Any underlying problems will inevitably come out of the woodwork

You have to consider a lot of things at the same time. You’re bringing a lot of assets and a lot of staff together. Any underlying problems will inevitably come out of the woodwork so it is vital to address them early. A principal must fully understand their own facility, as well as having thorough research into the institution that they are merging with.

Consider the drivers for your merger, carefully observe the financial state of the college you intend to partner with and think about the considerable amount of time and commitment that you need to invest. This will mean you will be involved in a lot more than just the day-to-day running of the institution. Importantly, remember that colleges are people organisations and the focus on staff and the implications for them will be critical to success.

With our second merger we knew exactly what needed to be done and the processes that were involved, so we were able to do things a lot more rapidly. All preparation for the merger was done in-house and we planned everything down to the last detail.

There is no right or wrong merger model. We can provide evidence from our latest inspection report that we are here to provide for students from many different backgrounds. We believe that if we get the student and staff parts right, everything else follows.

However, a merger may not be the best strategy for every institution. The key reason is that a college is having serious difficulties, either financially, educationally or both, with little capacity to resolve this in the long term. Importantly, the merger has to be able to provide benefit to both colleges and their students.

If your college is considering a merger, make sure you fully understand what you are undertaking and what it will mean for the colleges and the local area.

In our experience the mergers needed to happen for the greater good of the people living in and around the city, and to improve the overall educational and skills attainment picture for the local area and for our local economy.