College seeks to join university…but not as a traditional merger partner

Midlands college and university begin talks to form an FE company within the university group

Midlands college and university begin talks to form an FE company within the university group

Talks have begun between a college and university in the Midlands for a “pioneering” tie-up that will see a further education company formed as part of the university group.

North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College and Coventry University have launched discussions about the college joining the university group.

While the details of what that may look like are still being ironed out, college and university chiefs said it would not be a formal merger akin to others in recent years.

College principal and chief executive Marion Plant said “strong assurances” had been given “about the maintenance of high levels of autonomy of leadership and governance for the college within the group”.

University provost Ian Dunn said it would be an “education group, so not the college being a subsidiary but being an educational partner”.

The college and university already have a partnership with the college’s MIRA Technology Institute, while it also has a digital skills academy based at the university’s tech park in Coventry city centre.

Plant said: “That partnership has just proven that, by having a seamless join-up, we can respond better, more swiftly, and in a more agile way not just to industry partners but individuals trying to navigate the education system and find a sustainable career.”

The two institutions are working with the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Office for Students on the plans.

With talks at an early stage, plenty of details are still to be addressed, although it is hoped more specifics will be available in the spring.

Among the issues will be the arrangements for the Midland Academies Trust, an independent charity established by the college.

The university group already has the Better Futures multi-academy trust, but Dunn said the trusts’ arrangements were among details to be worked on.

Chiefs also said it was too early to say what the tie-up could mean for provision, but there were ambitions for students to have a “line of sight” to their future.

Dunn said: “It’s a map – it’s not tramlines, you are not forcing someone to stay on that.”

He added: “It’s about the future – it’s about 10 years out thinking what’s going to be fit for the future in terms of local development and education.”

North Warwickshire and Hinckley College merged with South Leicestershire College in 2016, but in 2018 the merged college was given a financial notice to improve by the ESFA.

At the time the college explained it was a consequence of delivering £1 million of unfunded teaching in 2017/18 due to the funding methodology and a decline in apprenticeship income.

ESFA college accounts said it owed £2.5 million in exceptional financial support in 2016/17, with loans of £14.2 million outstanding.

The ESFA closed the financial notice to improve in July 2020. According to its accounts for 2021/22, the college made a £619,000 operating surplus.

Plant said the university tie-up plans were “pioneering” and “not driven by any financial imperative”. She said that “all the feedback from external stakeholders has been incredibly positive” but recognised any change could be disruptive so would make that a priority.

Four colleges have merged with universities since 2015, compared with 77 college-to college mergers over the same period.

In 2018, the University of Bolton and Bolton College merged. The existing college corporation was dissolved and a new limited company formed with the university as its sole member, effectively giving the university ultimate control.

Lambeth College merged with London South Bank University in 2019 in a move which saw the college corporation close and a new company formed as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the university.

In 2021, the National College for Advanced Transport and Infrastructure became a subsidiary of the University of Birmingham, before Ruskin College was acquired as a subsidiary of the University of West London that same year.

In addition, Hartpury College attained university status and became a higher education company in 2018, changing its name to Hartpury University and Hartpury College. In that arrangement, its FE provision – Hartpury College of Further Education – became a subsidiary company to the higher education corporation.

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