'Merger' is a word that everyone involved studiously avoids. But it is difficult not to see the coming together of the Manchester Business School, the Umist School of Management and Manchester University's department of accounting and finance as a precedent.
The four universities in the city already pool their library resources. Will there come a time when Manchester University, Umist (the separate University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology), Manchester Metropolitan University (formerly the city's polytechnic) and nearby Salford University are acting as a 'super-university' with more than 50,000 students? That is, after all, the scale on which they do things in Europe and America.
It seems logical, especially as the new funding regime for universities promises rewards for big battalions of academics, able to teach lots of students and score highly in the research league tables.
Logical, but not inevitable. One look at London University, busy tearing itself apart into independent institutions, and the inherently fissiparous tendency of academics is all too clear. Faced with demands for greater autonomy from London's restive leading institutions - the London School of Economics, Imperial College and University College - the university is trying to loosen, but not cut, the apron strings. Whether the diplomatic efforts of Stewart Sutherland, London's vice-chancellor, will succeed remains to be seen, but it helps to explain why many in Manchester are coy about talk of mergers.
'It's not a merger, it's a federation,' insists Cary Cooper, deputy head of the Umist School of Management and a proponent of the new joint venture. He is clear about the advantages of bringing together a range of courses from undergraduate to MBAs for business executives to specialised degrees in accountancy alongside a wide range of research.
Both the Umist school and the university's department of accountancy and finance scored the top rating of five in the recent exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. That will bring them money from the council and, equally important, the prestige to attract funds from business and from other bodies.
Professor Cooper is clear that Manchester should be going after big international research grants from the European Commission. 'If business schools want to play on the international scene they have to have large staffs competent to hit every discipline,' he says.
As the author of Mergers and Acquisitions: the Human Factor, Professor Cooper knows only too well that the 'federation' will provoke strains among the staff, but feels these can be overcome by good management.
Martin Harris, the new vice-chancellor of Manchester University, is treading warily as he promotes co-operation with his neighbours in what is the biggest concentration of students in Europe. Between them these universities offer an unrivalled range of teaching, graduate training and research, he says.
'The question we have to address is how to maximise the strengths and advantages contiguity confers without diminishing or jeopardising the very diversity that ensures that Manchester has this enormous spread. We must protect that diversity otherwise we reduce the range of choice to students and the range of research,' says Professor Harris.
While they compete for home students, the Manchester universities may combine to recruit overseas students or go after research grants, he predicts. The penalties for failing in the research ratings or for getting the sums wrong over student numbers are great, but so too are the prizes for getting it right. Consequently, universities are busily calculating where they can best go it alone and where they need to combine with others.
Manchester is the model held up by John Ashworth, former vice-chancellor of Salford University and now director of the LSE. Manchester, he says, is like Western Europe, where autonomous institutions came together to co-operate on schemes such as the modular Master's programme. London is more like the Soviet Union. Not at all displeased to have been nicknamed 'Boris' in Senate House, the rather Stalinist pile which houses London University's central administration, Professor Ashworth is not known for his tact.
'You are stuck with this superstructure of idiocy which does not add any value to the academic purposes of the institutions,' he says. 'I have 500 busy, intelligent colleagues who do not take kindly to the fact that they have to waste a lot of time in bureaucratic nonsense. This Stalinist activity has irritated everybody. It is more difficult to do things in the University of London because there is suspicion and distrust. I am somewhat disillusioned. We will have to become more separate before we can come together again. It will be a difficult and painful process.'
He wants to see the LSE competing on a European stage as a premier graduate school for the social sciences. Many students graduate after three years at the school without ever realising that they have been part of the University of London, he says, adding: 'The vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster (formerly the Polytechnic of Central London) has powers that the director of the LSE does not have - appointing professors, for instance.'
But he insists that the school is not in the vanguard of demands for change in London. 'None of our vital interests is much affected. We have direct access to the funding council and financial autonomy. We are getting much closer to the point where we can make bilateral arrangements without having to go through some appalling bureaucratic misery invented for other times and purposes.'
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