Fewer but stronger? The ongoing push to merge
It has become an article of faith in some political circles that it is better to have fewer universities. The thinking behind this appears to be that university mergers allow the pooling of resources, and the achievement of critical mass.
The latest push for mergers has just emerged in Wales. Higher Education Wales (HEW), the umbrella body for Welsh universities, is reported to have agreed that it will ‘cooperate with proposals to halve the number of Welsh institutions’ – the current number being 12 (already down from 15 a couple of years ago).
Stakeholders in the system, from the Welsh government to the trade unions, have broadly welcomed the HEW position, and so it appears that a process to achieve these aims will get under way quickly. Whether this makes as much sense as the commentary would suggest is debatable. Reducing the number of institutions by six over a short period of time is no easy task, and is likely to involve very difficult decisions and some disorientation within the system. Whether the outcome will provide Wales with stronger institutions may also not be as obvious as is being suggested. Mergers only add strength if there is a already a high level of strategic collaboration that involves academics working on the ground. A top-down merger process is much more vulnerable, as some unsuccessful attempts have shown (most notably in London, with the failed merger of Imperial College and University College nearly ten years ago). Furthermore, the most immediate impact of mergers tends to be higher costs, and these may create issues during a time of public expenditure cuts.
On the other hand, strategic alliances and partnerships can be very effective. In that sense the approach that has been adopted by the universities in Ireland – to work towards clusters of strategic collaboration, in which provision can also be rationalised – may be rather more effective.
Wales may end up in a position where all universities have been in a merger process. Whether this will produce stability and strategic innovation is very debatable. But no doubt the rest of us will watch with some interest to see how it goes.