Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.
According to one group of contacts, the outlook for further education is particularly bleak. In this version of events, area reviews sweep the land like the eye of Sauron. The fellowships of FE are to be usurped by a swathe of expedient mergers, which will feel (for one side at least) like a siege, rather than a marriage of venerable houses.
Among other manager and teacher friends, these dour predictions are little more than high fantasy. The area review process is an unfortunate distraction. Mergers have long been a feature of the landscape and reviews will not, for practical and economic reasons, lead to a significant increase in their number. Institutional autonomy will hold fast. As Samwise Gamgee says: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. It does look likely that the rate of merger will accelerate, although we cannot be certain when or where this will happen for the right reasons (i.e. to better meet student, community and employer need and improve opportunities for staff).
However it is clear – from the literature and recent history – that where mergers in both further and higher education have been unsuccessful, there are a number of common factors.
Firstly, unrealistic expectations bear down on the enterprise like an army of orcs. Mergers are likely to disappoint those looking for savings in the short and medium term, and those who underestimate the challenge of integrating two recently distinct organisations. Failure to manage those expectations can lead to untimely intervention from funders, governing bodies and regulators.
Secondly, as one college Principal recently wrote, ‘the risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial’. We have seen very strong colleges for instance, led by capable teams, badly injured in the effort of dragging another off the field of combat.
Thirdly, they fall victim to ‘poorly managed post-deal integration’ – lack of appropriate planning and poor strategy and management. Under this heading I would include poor communication and the inability to express a clear vision.
Where mergers proceed, institutions must set out a strong educational case – otherwise they are unlikely to persuade their key publics (staff and students primarily) that it is the right thing to do.
But merging institutions often struggle to make this case. Sometimes there just isn’t one to be made. Sometimes the consultation stage is too shallow to provide any robust evidence either for or against the merger and the opportunity is lost. Or in Tolkien’s words: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
And sometimes the institutions involved simply do not possess the capacity to communicate effectively in such challenging circumstances.
It’s tough. We are bringing together a group of communication experts, all of whom have first-hand experience of mergers, to help institutions overcome the communication and relationship management challenges that they will face.
These include creating and relaying consistent messages at a time when boards or leadership teams want to bring different agendas to the table. At the very point when employees are anxious and management teams are changing, those leading the process need to deliver stability and reassurance while retaining trust through timely, open and honest communication.
Unfamiliar structures – including regional boards and interim leadership groups – add another layer of complexity. The pressures of leadership, momentum, mission, unity, quality and due diligence threaten to relegate communication to an afterthought.
Among the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself often a symptom of the nervousness of key groups, colleges and universities can miss the opportunity to provide an alternative to negative narratives (the institution as victim) or to retain valued heritage rather than abandon it in the rush to create a new organisation.
The most significant challenges typically materialise after a merger; managing the cultural differences between previously competing institutions and minimising the disruption to employees of physical relocation and procedural changes, requires careful, considered and professional two-way internal communication.
Nevertheless some mergers succeed where, for instance, consultation is effective, ethical, and informative, institutions focus on engagement and retention, understand the risks in under-communicating with employees and place a premium on the individual without distracting from the day-job. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” says Galadriel. The outlook is not necessarily desolate.
 BIS, ‘Current models of collaboration – Post 14 Further Education’, June 2015
 Oakleigh Consulting Limited, ‘Literature review for the higher education collaborations, alliances and mergers project’, HEFCE, 2010