Telford ‘not forced into merger talks’

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Education minister Michael Russell says he did not force Telford College into a merger with fellow Edinburgh colleges Stevenson and Jewel & Esk.

The college made the surprise announcement yesterday that it would enter talks on the merger – just seven months after it had ruled itself out.

Mr Russell said the college board had made its own decision to join the merger, which is already under way between the other two colleges.

The merged college would be one of the UK’s biggest, with around 40,000 students and 1200 staff, and an annual budget of around £60 million.

Last month, Mr Russell said the Scottish Government should “force the pace” on college mergers, but told the Evening News today he did not have the power to force the college board into a U-turn.

He said the board, which made the decision at a special meeting on Monday night, had changed its mind after considering recent Scottish Government moves to reorganise post-16 education on a regional basis.

He said: “I think they’ve spent a lot of time looking at the possibilities and thinking about them. The regionalisation agenda has come along since they first considered this.

“They’ve made a decision as a board, so they’ve made a choice.

“It’s no secret that I think this merger’s a good idea – I said some weeks ago that I thought it was a good idea – but I don’t have the power of direction.”

Telford’s board chairman Jim Donaldson said yesterday he was confident there would be no job losses at the college as a result of it joining the merger. He said: “I have no fears about job losses because Telford College is already a highly efficient organisation in terms of its staffing costs.

“Over the past three years we have taken decisions and there have been voluntary severance programmes on offer. I’m not fearful of any major staff losses.”

However, his comments come just months after Telford principal Miles Dibsdall told the Evening News of the Stevenson and Jewel & Esk merger: “I think you would have to be naive to think that a merger won’t mean job losses. This will be a rationalisation – that’s what a merger gives you.”

Penny Gower, president of the EIS union’s Further Education Lecturers Association, said its members would oppose cuts and mergers, and would consider strike action over the issue.

She said: “We’re opposed to mergers unless there’s a good education rationale, and there isn’t.

“There has been no convincing case made for Stevenson and Jewel & Esk let alone the third one, so this is not driven by educational need.”

Mr Donaldson said the college’s change of heart came in the wake of the Scottish Government’s renewed push for large regional colleges in two recent white papers.

He said: “The context has changed totally and we have reassessed our position and want the best future in terms of our college and we decided that given the new context, merger talks would be entered into.”

He said the merger would be subject to consultation with staff and students, but hoped it would be in place by the end of next year.

Stevenson and Jewel & Esk colleges both welcomed the announcement.