To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

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.

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10 Comments on “To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?”

  1. no-name Says:

    “All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework.”

    One might wonder about the possibility that part of the Irish government’s strategy is to weaken the the higher education sector. On such a strategy it is an advantage to create circumstances in which none rank in the global top 500. If none of its universities are taken seriously internationally, then government need not feel pressure to heed any advice that arises from within them. The merger idea is crazy only if you retain the notion that the goal is to strengthen the sector.

  2. V.H Says:

    Is it not totally a question of costs. Where all other considerations aren’t in the frame at all. And given the pay and pensions are fixed the only logical way of reducing costs would be to close the under-performing entity and eat the costs accrued since long term there would be savings.
    As to Waterford. There won’t be a move on that place until a local minister with a real portfolio needs to cast largesse upon the Suir, Nore and Barrow.

  3. Eddie Says:

    I wondered about the proposed merger between RGU and Aberdeen U, mooted in 2002 mentioned here in item 3 of the minutes: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/minutes/sennov02.html. Heard that the staff did not like it, not sure whether the opposition to this from the staff in both institutions or just one of them.

    Also, interesting discussion here about Scottish university mergers:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-15114542

    As for IOE and UCL merger, given that there is already close cooperation between UCL, which incidently awards its own degrees, and London University’s institutes/colleges like IOE and Birkbeck, which award London University’s degrees, all of which are in the Bloomsbury area in London, the merger should work well. UCL also comes within the larger umbrella of London University and this also makes the task easy.

  4. Ben Says:

    The proposed merger between DIT, ITB and ITT is something that is wanted by the policy makers but not the staff of the respective institutions (in my opinion). DIT has a long history of dysfunction (http://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/dublin-institute-of-technology-staff-concerned-at-lack-of-clear-vision-1.1977590) and poor IR environments while the smaller institutions, though never attracting the top of CAO applicants, do an excellent job in their environments, have flat management structures, are agile and according to Brian Lucy, give an excellent return to the economy.

    At present, the proposed DIT merger with ITT and ITB looks like it may become a costly mess. Why we are hell bent on the removal of small agile HE institutions from the landscape is beyond me.

    If I was a betting man, the new entity will be management heavy. Presidents, vice presidents, deans, directors, heads of schools, heads of departments, assistant heads of departments and finally academics who will be several layers away from any influence. Its a nonsense but I doubt Jan O’Sullivan will see it for what it is. A costly, unnecessary and damaging mess.

  5. cormac Says:

    Re “Under a new framework… 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”
    The word ‘so’ is not correct here – while merging is as a mandatory prerequisite, there is no guarantee that university status will result. So one could all too easily end up with the worst of all worlds…

  6. cormac Says:

    Btw, I notice that you’re still saying “One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology.”
    This is misleading because it omits the highly relevant fact that it is the city of Waterford and surrounding region that have been driving the campaign for a university in the southeast..and they’re not doing it for fun, but because of the brain-drain of students and industry to Dublin.

    This aspect of the Waterford situation makes it very different to that of other institutions such as Cork IT or indeed DIT, a point that always seems to be missed by commentators.

  7. Des Griffin Says:

    Most sense I have read in years. Politics are driving this process which is attempting to force WIT into a marriage with ITCarlow ,followed by teh constructionof campuses in Kilkenny and Wexford. No otehr merged institution is faced with this sort of dilution process which will ruin WIT (and probably Carlow too) and set back third level education in the south east another generation. Judge WIT on its own!

  8. redmike Says:

    Sadly the merger logic with regard to WIT and Carlow IT is all too easily read – one for everyone in the audience. In the ultra competitive environment of the South East its considered politically unwise to be seen improving the lot of one location at the presumed expense of another. Damn the logic of centres of excellence (see hospitals etc!). WIT is head and shoulders above Carlow IT and can clearly make the case on its own merits.

    The Dept of Education needs to promote quality in one location.

  9. James Fryar Says:

    There’s an episode of South Park in which the Underpants Gnomes outline their somewhat incomplete ‘business strategy’:

    1. Collect Underpants
    2. ?
    3. Make Profit

    The ambiguity of the second step did not, however, deter them from carrying out the preceding step due to their unwavering faith that the strategy could succeed.

    Which is sort of like the merging of institutions. There seems to be a strategy in place which is even less defined:

    1. Merge institutions
    2. ?
    3. Em, make the one institution, em, ‘better’ somehow by some metric?

    I am disturbed by the similarity between the business model of fictional cartoon underpants gnomes and the Irish government’s strategy towards higher education.

  10. Akber Says:

    merger of universities idea not appropriate they were all failed in internationalization. Miniter is trying to cut funding and would like to go with a merger proposal.


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