Survival of the fittest

With competition for students - and funding - tougher than ever, more and more universities are joining forces. What's the secret of a successful merger? Lucy Hodges investigates
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The Independent Online

To merge, or not to merge? That is the question facing many universities as they work out how to make themselves stronger in a new, more competitive, marketplace. Proposals for mergers are on the increase in the university world, and the reason is that higher education institutions are being encouraged by the Government to think more about collaboration, according to a report published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute.

But the road to merger can be a long and difficult path, according to the report by Nigel Brown, Jane Denholm and Tony Clark, who interviewed people in five different sets of merger talks. Mergers more often than not go wrong, and the main factor scuppering merger negotiations is a lack of trust and understanding between key people in the different institutions.

"Senior managers, and especially the vice-chancellors or principals of both institutions, must be fully committed to the merger in terms of the shared vision and objectives of the merger proposal," say the authors. "It is hardly credible to expect staff within an institution to take a merger proposal seriously if there is any evidence of a lack of commitment at the top of the institution."

The five case studies used were the universities of Aston and Birmingham, where merger talks came to nought; Brunel and Royal Holloway, where they also came to nothing; London Guildhall University and the University of North London (UNL), which merged to form London Metropolitan University; Manchester University and Umist, which has also gone ahead; and the similarly successful merger of the University of Salford and Salford College of Technology.

The merger of UNL and London Guildhall is thought to be a model of its kind, and is described in detail in the report. Both were former polytechnics and both had been involved in unsuccessful merger talks with other institutions. London Guildhall had twice talked to City University about merger, to no avail. It had also talked to Anglia Polytechnic about merging, in 1989. UNL had explored the idea of merger with Middlesex University.

For UNL, the rationale for the merger was staying alive in the intensely competitive London higher education market. It felt it was prevented by its size from being able to innovate, because it could not generate the surplus income needed to invest in new developments. The trigger for looking at a merger came when the two vice-chancellors, Professors Roderick Floud and Brian Roper, talked at a conference in Krakow in the autumn of 2000.

The merger process was in three stages. First, the two sides looked at its feasibility. At the end of that, an announcement was made that they were exploring merger. In stage two, a business plan was drawn up and the academic rationale developed. Officers also looked at the legal and financial issues, and approached the Higher Education Funding Council for financial support. The boards of governors became involved. In the final stage, the merger was implemented. But it will take five or more years to work through fully.

The negotiations were overseen by a joint committee of both boards of governors, with an academic staff representative from each institution on the joint committee. This body's input was seen as vital. It met monthly and dealt with difficult issues.

The joint committee was supported by a chairs' group containing the two chairmen of the boards of the two universities, the two chief executives, and two clerks. This group considered issues before they went to the joint committee.

One of the great merits of the London Met merger was the speed with which it was accomplished. It took two years from when the vice-chancellors first talked about it in Krakow to legal implementation, on 1 August 2002. So, although there was some staff opposition, particularly at London Guildhall, where it was felt it was being rushed through, the opposition didn't have time to gather steam.

Merger proposals can cause anxiety and uncertainty, the report says. So staff and students have to be kept informed, and their temperature has to be taken regularly. In addition, the academic case for merger has to be convincing in relation to teaching and research. "It appears that the merger proposal between Imperial college and University College London foundered because academic staff were not convinced by the academic case for merger."

Legal issues can also throw up unforeseen problems. The Aston/Birmingham merger foundered over the legal issue of double dissolution - dissolving the two institutions' entities and creating a new one. In the end, Birmingham couldn't bring itself to do this.