One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.
In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.
It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.
All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.
All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.
Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.