Small is beautiful or big is best. That, in simple terms, is the choice facing hard-pressed art and design colleges. They are not alone at this crossroads. Other specialist institutions have faced similar decisions: in land-based education, specialist colleges have either merged to become the agriculture department of a university or, like Hadlow College in Kent, have fought Learning and Skills Council pressure to retain independence.
The urge to merge has been stimulated by a relaxation in the criteria by which colleges can become universities. The first specialist arts institution to secure a university title was the University of the Arts London, the former London Institute, inaugurated in May 2004. It pulled together the capital's famous five art colleges - Chelsea, Camberwell, Central Saint Martins, the London College of Fashion and the London College of Communication - to create the largest arts university in Europe. It has all the funding advantages of a university but, under rector Sir Michael Bichard's leadership, has let its individual colleges keep their names and identities. This is an attractive model for smaller institutions looking to retain their distinctive identity, while piggy-backing on the financial and administrative resources of a large university - and a sixth college may be joining the federation shortly.
The same prize of a university title prompted the recent merger of the Kent and Surrey institutes of art and design. The combined institution has renamed itself the University College for the Creative Arts at Canterbury, Epsom, Farnham, Maidstone & Rochester, and is set for university status by 2007.
The merger has created a single body with the muscle to join the university sector - and rector Elaine Thomas believes it's a club worth joining. "As a specialist university, we can offer a strong voice for our subject," says Professor Thomas. "It gets us a seat at the table when it comes to influencing policy."
She believes specialist art institutions offer something extra - focus, drive and support for students - that's impossible when submerged as a department within a larger institution. "I've worked in large universities where I've had responsibility for art and design, but you are often at the end of a queue when it comes to getting help," says Thomas. She believes there's safety in numbers, whether by informal allegiances or full-blown mergers. "We chose a merger because it gives us security and university status," she says.
Other institutions believe specialism can only be preserved by retaining independence. But this doesn't mean stagnating while rivals prosper. Ravensbourne College of Design and Communications has its own plans - full of change, investment and collaboration. Ravensbourne is set to move from its base in Chislehurst, Kent, to the Greenwich peninsula. There it will collaborate with Greenwich-based arts institutions Trinity Laban and the Rose Bruford drama college. The plan is to double student numbers to 2,000 and to relocate to a £50m site next to the Millennium Dome. "The way to survive is to have a niche, to know what you do and do it well," says principal Robin Baker, a firm advocate of diversity.
Ravensbourne's collaboration is another way of ensuring survival without sacrificing independence. Baker believes this is a model that will be increasingly adopted in the coming years, particularly in the capital. "Collaboration will be the name of the game in London for the next few years in order to offer a wide range of courses with the appropriate back up."
Collaboration is also on the cards at Wimbledon School of Art. Merger talks with Kingston University were called off last year as the small south-west London college sought to develop links within the specialist arts sector.
Talks with the University of the Arts London are ongoing and, says a spokesman, an announcement is due before the end of the year.