The View From Here

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Two new buzz-words have entered the vocabulary of higher education since Labour won the general election: "regions" and "mergers". Both are likely to be reinforced when the Dearing committee reports next month.

Until now British universities and colleges have been noted for their agnosticism, if not outright distaste, for both ideas. Higher education is predominantly seen as national business (the top universities, of course, prefer the more exclusive "international" label). The civic origins of many of the "old" universities have been conveniently forgotten, while, in their polytechnic days, the "new" universities could not wait to escape from the stigmatising control of local education authorities.

Mergers are no more welcome. British higher education, for all its distance from local communities, is fiercely territorial. I remember once hearing a distinguished vice-chancellor from the wrong side of the Pennines innocently suggest that Leeds and Bradford were really quite close - indeed, that you could drive from one to the other, outside the rush hour, in not much more than 15 minutes. I knew at once that he had put his foot in it. Sure enough, a burly Yorkshireman, almost certainly a lay member of a university council, slowly rose to his feet and said: "You can only get from Leeds to Bradford in a quarter of an hour in a police helicopter."

As a result regional identifications are weak, for all the proliferating bands of franchisee further education colleges. Many "old" universities are in cities, not of them, while "new" universities often see part-time students and local businesses as mere markets to be exploited - or as involuntary substitutes for full-timers and big companies.

Universities also remain small by international standards. A British university with 20,000 students is a monster; in the rest of Europe it would be only middle-sized. Forty-five universities instead of more than 90, each with twice as many students, might make better sense.

But, at long last, things may be about to change. The old demarcation between higher (= national) and further (= local) education is beginning to crumble. The Dearing report is likely to hasten its erosion. As financial support for students dwindles, stay-at-(or near-) home students may become the norm. Universities, even the posh ones, are now redefining themselves as key actors in technology transfer, acting as collection points for the world's science and distributing its benefits through their local and regional economies.

Smallish, autarchic institutions may also find it difficult to cope with year-on-year budget cuts and increasing pressure to hone their competitive advantage in crowded student and research markets. The news that the University of Bath and the University of the West of England are planning to merge may be the first of many merger stories this summer and autumn, although in this case a merger would merely recombine fragments of what was once advanced further education in Bristol, and flew apart as a result of national policies between the Fifties and Eighties (Bath was formerly Bristol College of Advanced Technology, and UWE was Bristol Polytechnic, which was formed out of what was left over). But issues of critical mass, at both strategic and operational levels, are likely to be raised more frequently post-Dearing.

However, both policies - a stronger regional focus, and the green light for institutional mergers - present difficulties. First, there is a problem with regions. England is Europe's oldest centralised state, and sub-loyalties are overwhelmingly local, or civic, rather than regional. Regions are the anaemic creation of government offices. No one in Bradford identifies with Leeds; rather, Leeds's would-be metropolitan ambitions must be curbed by West Riding localism. And no one in Sunderland is fooled into believing they live on Greater Tyneside. In addition, the closer the approach to London, the more intractable do the difficulties of defining regions become. Are we seriously to situate Oxford in the south Midlands?

Mergers also raise awkward questions. Even a decade ago, big was still beautiful. But in the post-Fordist present, down-sizing and out-sourcing are the new mantras. Big, bad bureaucracies are dinosaurs. The institution is dead - especially in its worst, top-down, dirigiste form. Instead, network and web-institutions composed of flexible teams are preferred, which put aside issues of ownership, control, systems and procedures.

In this new climate it is no longer obvious that larger universities can deliver worthwhile economies of scale or generate clearer strategic visions. Mergers on the Bath-UWE pattern may prove to be the exception rather than the rule. And predatory universities' gobbling-up of financially- challenged further education colleges may also be a short-lived sport.

But this does not mean that regions and mergers will go away. Instead, they will need to be reinterpreted to fit contemporary conditions. In place of rigid regional affiliations, universities may play with notions of "glocalisation", in which the global and the local are creatively combined. In place of "hard", management-led mergers, "soft", even osmotic, relationships between neighbouring institutions may be encouraged. And an independent further education sector may continue to thrive within a networked post- school system rather than suffer the fate of being submerged, like the American community colleges

The author is professor of education and director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education, at the University of Leeds.