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.

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4 Comments on “Fewer but stronger? The ongoing push to merge”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well, what they certainly don’t want is a Health Service Executive . And even if I am advocating that all Irish universities sail under the one flag for branding purposes. There should never be two or more positions doing the one job.
    On a Point of Order. Is Stakeholder the best word in this context, given that the newer meaning has gold-mining, claim jumping, shoot outs and other nefarious connotations attached to it. While the older meaning has the trusted men of the community ring about it. Holding a stake with a woman tied to it by ropes leading to the four points of a cross while Ash faggots are piled at her feet isn’t what’s in mind.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Vincent i had expressed a similar dislke of the word stakeholder a few days ago but now you have added some very persuasive arguments to hate it 🙂

  2. Eddie Says:

    There was an example of a merger closer to home. The proposal of merger between RGU and U of Aberdeen nearly a decade ago which failed, and which some said was an opportunity missed and since then it is no surprise that U of Aberdeen’s engineering department ( the purpose of merger it was rumoured was to get RGU’s engineering school) has expanded so much attracting the best academics, and is arguably the best department in the United Kingdom it terms of its strength in many areas in engineering.

    • Eddie Says:

      Talking of strategic alliance; The Times Higher reports that Royal Holloway College, a constituent college of the London University has validated a new Pearson’s business degree so that they could run in a few colleges. A few more validations in other subject areas are being planned. Students in local colleges could be taught degree courses of the London University, making it more oraginsed and extensive than the current London university external degrees. We could expect similar alliance between top RG and selective local colleges. HE landsape is changing. Kudos to Prof Paul Layzell,the distinguished software engineer-principal of Royal Holloway.

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