CIVIC chiefs say the last-minute collapse of plans to merge two major Hampshire colleges has surprised them.

The union of Southampton City and Eastleigh colleges would have affected 28,000 students, the plan was abandoned after the Government rejected the move.

The merger has been months in preparation and would have led to job losses in senior management, finance, marketing, and human resources.

Southampton civic chiefs are now believed to be seeking urgent meetings with the colleges to discuss the surprise announcement.

Councillor Darren Paffey, Southampton City Council’s cabinet member for aspiration, schools and lifelong learning, said in a statement: “We are aware of the situation and are working with Southampton City College.

"The learning and opportunities of our residents are important, particularly in relation to preparing our young people for fulfilling careers.”

Councillor Sarah Bogle, the local ward member for City College whose campus is in St Mary’s, said: “We were fully supportive of the proposal so it is a surprise and disappointment that it is not going ahead.

“I understand there will be meetings this week to work out what is going on.

“It is speculation and I don’t know what has happened, but usually these things are about money or governance.”

On Friday, principals Dr Jan Edrich, of Eastleigh College, and Sarah Stannard, of City College, said in a statement: “We have received news that our request for funding from the Government to support the planned merger has not been approved.

“Whilst this decision is disappointing for both parties, it will not impact either college’s mission to continue delivering quality educational outcomes.

“We put our students at the heart of all we do and will continue to do so as we move forward.

"We would like to reassure students, staff and parents that this decision will not affect the delivery of any of our courses, and the Government has assured us it is committed to ensuring further education provision in Southampton.”

College leaders said the move would give students more opportunities to get into high-quality apprenticeships and further education.

The Government’s reasons for scuppering the plans at such a late stage were still unclear last night, although a statement released hinted it might be to do with the long-term viability of the new college.

A spokesman said: "‎All bids for funding from the Restructuring Facility fund are assessed through a rigorous governance and approval criteria including whether a college is financially sustainable in the long term.

“We will work with Southampton City College to ensure that no learners are negatively affected.”

Public money, the exact amount unavailable, has been spent on preparing for the merger and Dr Edrich had been announced last year as the principal of the combined college.

Dr Stannard, who had run Southampton City College for five years, was to move on.

In 2017 Ofsted inspectors said City College required improvements while Eastleigh was rated ‘outstanding’ at its last inspection.