Alliance culture could benefit Midlands renewal

April 14, 2000

Admiral House 66-68 East Smithfield London E1W 1BX Fax 020 7782 3300 Tel 020 7782 3000 Email Website Mergers in higher education can be laborious. Universities are deliberately constituted as free standing independent institutions with democratic systems of governance. Sensitivities can run high and achieving agreement can wear down even the most patient.

Nonetheless, the changes under discussion in Birmingham must be a harbinger for the future. The West Midlands is a strong bidder for regional devolution. The city of Birmingham helped by its rich cultural life has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Now, as a result of the devastating blow to Longbridge, the region's universities - Birmingham, Aston, Central England, Coventry and Warwick - have an opportunity, through cooperation and a degree of healthy competition, to provide the impetus needed to move the region's economy from metal-bashing to knowledge-generation.

Birmingham and Aston are rightly moving cautiously. There is a lack of precedents, particularly where two universities are concerned. Roehampton and Surrey, with a range of subjects that meant each gained what they previously lacked, have gone for federation and avoided the turf wars inherent in merger.

Salford and Salford College of Technology merged after long and painstaking negotiations to form a much larger institution with a wider reach in the community, while managing not to push the university further down the league tables.

Birmingham and Aston will gain from closer working: their sites provide inner city accessibility for business purposes and suburban calm for academic pursuits. Aston has academic strengths that would add to Birmingham's lustre.

Birmingham's size would give Aston security. And Maxwell Irvine, one of the main architects of the partnership, is set to provide one other prerequisite for success - his retirement will leave the partnership with only one vice chancellor (People, page 10).

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