Leader: Together, they are stronger

To compete on the world stage, universities are increasingly considering mergers as a way to enhance status and expertise

December 15, 2011

International competitiveness is stepping up. Universities are trying to enhance their reputations and research standing, increase their visibility and climb the world rankings, both straightforwardly and in more unconventional ways.

Building a world-class institution takes time, but in Saudi Arabia where there is much cash but little patience, academic big-hitters are being offered incentives to add the name of an institution to their research papers in a bid to propel it up the rankings. "Universities buy people's reputations all the time," astronomer Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge and now a King Abdulaziz University affiliate told Science. "In principle, this is no different from Harvard hiring a prominent researcher."

In Sweden, where mergers are very much the order of the day as education minister Jan Björklund tackles a demographic decline in the university-age cohort, three institutions - the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm University and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology - have announced that they are in merger talks. This super-university would be the largest in northern Europe, specialise in four areas that would be responsible for 40 per cent of all Swedish research, and have a budget of more than SEK9 billion (£841 million). And, of course, would boast combined rankings power.

Another country eyeing mergers is the Netherlands, already a rankings star, being third behind the US and UK with 12 of its 13 research universities in the top 200 in this year's Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and second only to Switzerland (seven universities) on a per capita measure of value for money. But the government is not satisfied with that and wants a Dutch institution in the top 50. To this end it is trying to get institutions to pool their research expertise by specialising in certain areas. A merger between the universities of Erasmus, Delft and Leiden is being considered, looking at a model similar to that of the University of California.

Leiden's rector Paul van der Heijden insists that this is the only way to break the US-UK rankings dominance. But he admits it is "not a very Dutch thing to do" and is a controversial move in a country that is fiercely egalitarian, where "if you say you want to be the best, people think you are an arrogant prick", as one professor says in our cover story.

"This is a world where the winner takes all," says Pauline van der Meer Mohr, president of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is well aware of the risks of a merger, especially when staff and students are not in favour, as a survey there shows, but writes in her blog: "Sometimes it feels as though we spend more time relaxing the sceptics than chasing the dream."

Successful as the Dutch are on the world stage, though, how are they faring in attracting UK students? The lure is, of course, an undergraduate tuition fee of about £1,500 and the fact that much of the teaching is in English. The oft-quoted example is that of Maastricht University, which has been all over the UK media in the past year. Apparently, a record number of UK students took up a place in September, more than double that of the previous year and seven times that for 2009.

But UK universities need not panic just yet: the figures are not as exciting as the percentages, at just 137, 49 and 19.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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