Analysis: Optimism rules in marriage of convenience

March 1, 2002

Will a merger enable Guildhall and North London universities to prosper? Alison Goddard assesses the state of the union.

On August 1, London Metropolitan University is set to rise from the ashes of London Guildhall University and the University of North London. By merging the two struggling institutions, it is hoped that a single, stronger university will be created.

The recipe for the new institution calls for 20 per cent more students, which would make it the country's second largest university, 6 per cent fewer jobs and 10 per cent fewer buildings.

And because neither institution has enough money to prosper alone, each plans to cut central costs to release enough cash to expand into, say, new academic areas or teaching sites.

The proposed mission statement of the new university is: "The university aims to provide education and training which will help students to achieve their potential and London to succeed as a world city. It is and will continue to be the major provider of business and vocational education for the City and north and east London. The university recognises and celebrates London as a dynamic and diverse city but also one that contains poverty and discrimination which the university must confront and combat."

Roderick Floud, provost of Guildhall, said: "What has constrained London Guildhall University has been under-capitalisation and a lack of resources for what it wants to do. This merger will give us a wider subject range and a greater flexibility that comes from graduate schools, and it will enable us to break out."

The plans for London Metropolitan University are not fully formed. The name itself has yet to be approved by the Privy Council - and there have already been a handful of objections to it. Only two people have been appointed to its staff.

Furthermore, the funding council has not yet agreed to fund the merger. The universities are seeking £10 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England's restructuring plan. It is likely that Hefce will fund the merger, and a decision is expected in the next few weeks. But if there is no funding council support, the merger will be reconsidered.

Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of North London, said: "The merger has not been given any guaranteed funding from the funding council yet. But the business case is overwhelming. It's a case of 'give us the money now or we will get in the queue for emergency measures'."

In anticipation of receiving the cash, the two universities have been drafting designs for the merged institution. The long-term ambition is for the new university to be the major teaching-led university in London.

Under the plans, the new university would have two heads for the first three years of its life. Professor Floud has been appointed vice-chancellor and chief academic officer, while Mr Roper has been appointed chief executive and accounting officer.

The two have agreed to divide their responsibilities so that Professor Floud, who is also president of Universities UK, will be the face of the new university while Mr Roper will focus on the merger and internal management.

By August 1, the institution will have a company registration number and a name, a board of governors, a memorandum and articles, a mission statement and a single set of strategic objectives and financial forecasts.

It will start offering the first London Metropolitan courses this autumn. The focus will initially be professional and short courses.

In autumn 2003, the university will offer postgraduate and further education courses. In 2004, it will admit its first undergraduates to a fully integrated modular programme.

The aim of the academic structure, which is due to be finalised next week, is to build flexible learning routes. Both institutions have students who switch between different modes of study as their personal circumstances change.

The undergraduate programme will be modular across the university's subject range so that students can take specialist, interdisciplinary or joint degrees. The modular structure should also allow students to change study hours to suit their circumstances.

To achieve this, the university is likely to have about 12 academic units - described by Professor Floud as "broadly groups of conventional disciplines" - organised as departments rather than as faculties. The heads of departments are due to be appointed after Easter.

The university also plans to establish a "College of London" covering its further education and pre-degree courses. Outreach and access activities would also be based there.

A graduate school is on the cards. There are also plans to create research centres and institutes, where work will focus on exploiting the new university's knowledge base and enabling knowledge transfer to local industries and professions. Staff at these centres will conduct research into finance, cities, urban regeneration and teaching and learning.

At present, neither institution has a strong research record. There is, however, some overlap that could be exploited. Of 32 entries to the research assessment exercise, ten were in overlapping units of assessment. But the average number of people included in the returns was fewer than ten per unit at either university.

The merged institution will aim to have one top-rated unit of assessment in one of the areas central to its mission in the next RAE.

Within five years, it wants at least two other research institutes to emerge from the current centres or combinations of centres. But three of the current institutes at North London will not be funded in three years'

time. Mr Roper said the university would take "a 20-year view towards developing research".

There is also a plan to establish a Canary Wharf Business School, offering continuing professional development programmes for workers in Docklands.

The idea of a merger has not received unanimous support from staff. In general, those at Guildhall oppose the merger while those at North London support it. Staff at both institutions have complained of a lack of consultation - a complaint that neither Professor Floud nor Mr Roper has much truck with.

Professor Floud said: "There has been a whole series of discussions. If people haven't been consulted, it's odd that they are sending me so many emails.

"The staff at Guildhall were sceptical. I believe that a vice-chancellor should lead their institution in the direction that will improve it. I have been told every year for 13 years that morale is at rock bottom. I take these things with a pinch of salt. We need to engage staff and help them to realise the benefits of the merger."

Mr Roper said: "On the question of academic structure, we have been discussing it over the past four months, consulting with the heads of departments concerned and holding meetings between the two institutions. People have been aware that the discussions are going on and that they are welcome to contribute. I would refute categorically that there is no consultation."

At present, the two universities have buildings in Aldgate, Holloway Road, Highbury, Moorgate, Shoreditch and Tower Hill. As neither is primarily a residential university, students are used to a daily commute.

Professor Floud said: "We will undertake a comprehensive campus review to match the academic structure with the estates. Nothing has yet been decided about the rationalisation of the estates. At the moment, we do not have a single campus."

In the longer term, however, the university plans to sell 10 per cent of its estate.

North London owns the freehold on its buildings, and sale could raise up to £10 million. But it may transpire that Guildhall's leasehold buildings are the least suitable for teaching and that these are sold instead, releasing smaller sums.

The merger is also expected to see the loss of some 6 per cent of jobs over the first five years. But none of these is expected to be compulsory. Instead, some jobs that become vacant will not be filled, and some staff will be able to take voluntary redundancy.

The whole plan rests on an ambitious expansion of student numbers. The expansion goal for the merged university over the five years from August is 20 per cent.

Much of this expansion will be through providing part-time postgraduate courses to overseas students, such as pre-course summer schools. Both universities are developing part-time masters courses that will be delivered by distance learning.

The university aims to boost the number of overseas students by 95 per cent and home and European Union students by 12 per cent. It wants part-time numbers to increase by 26 per cent and full-time by 15 per cent.

This expansion would take place mostly at the postgraduate level, where targets are up by 50 per cent, compared with a projected 13 per cent growth for undergraduates and 18 per cent at the further education level.

But the challenge will be immense in the face of declining student interest in both institutions.

Guildhall saw an 8.8 per cent drop in the number of students applying for full-time undergraduate courses by the January 15 deadline this year, compared with the previous annual deadline. North London saw a 13 per cent fall. The figures were released last week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Mr Roper concedes the danger of relying on such expansion. He said: "The business plan is sensitive to undergraduate recruitment, and the key is widening participation. If we fall short, we have business contingencies. But if we fall short, it would be worse if we were alone."

The university also aims to generate a financial surplus of 3 per cent in five years, rising to 5 per cent in seven years.

A crucial piece in the jigsaw is student finance. Guildhall takes 38 per cent of its students from the poorest backgrounds and North London 42 per cent. Any reform of the student support system that targets these students could boost enrolments at the new university.

More financial support for students could also help with retention. At present, 22 per cent of full-time undergraduates drop out of North London by the end of their first year. The figure for Guildhall is 14 per cent. The merged university intends to lower its combined student dropout rate by 2 per cent.

Further help could come from increasing the widening participation premium. Institutions receive cash for each student recruited from a postcode where few young people go into higher education.

When the intention to merge was announced in May last year, the University of East London's name was also mentioned as a future strategic partner.

But UEL has since shied away from any further involvement under its new vice-chancellor, Mike Thorne, who is overseeing its emergence from emergency supervision by the funding council.

The issue of further growth through strategic alliances and mergers is one that appeals to Mr Roper, but less so to Professor Floud.

Mr Roper said: "We wish to renew our acquaintance [with UEL] when the time is right. The discussions continue. We are interested very much in the south and the west of London. King's Cross is not well served. The merger is the start of a process, and completing the jigsaw will take time."

Professor Floud said: "The merged university will be the second biggest university, and I don't see that we want it much bigger."


CAPITAL CONDITIONS: THE TWO UNIVERSITIES COMPARED

London Guildhall

Staff : about 1,000

Students : more than 14,600; 46 per cent study part-time. Undergraduates account for 58 per cent, postgraduates 12 per cent and other higher education 19 per cent. The rest are in further education.

Access : Of young full-time undergraduates, 93 per cent come from state schools; 38 per cent are from lower social classes and 12 per cent from neighbourhoods in which the participation rate is less than two-thirds the national average.

Retention : 14 per cent of full-time undergraduates drop out by the end of their first year, says the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

History : In 1848 Charles Blomfield, bishop of London, called on the clergy to offer evening classes to improve the moral, intellectual and spiritual condition of the city's young men. Reverend Charles Mackenzie set up the Metropolitan Evening Classes for Young Men, in Bishopsgate. Subjects included Greek, Latin, English, history, mathematics, drawing and natural philosophy.

In 1861, the classes were reconstituted as the City of London College and, 20 years later, new premises were built in White Street. After these were destroyed in an air raid in 1940, the college moved to Moorgate.

In 1970, the City of London Polytechnic was formed by the merger of the City of London College and Sir John Cass College, a former technical institute. Seven years later, the polytechnic was given responsibility for the Fawcett Library, now the Women's Library.

The London College of Furniture joined the polytechnic in 1990. The polytechnic became London Guildhall University in 1992.

NORTH LONDON

Staff : about 2,000

Students : more than 14,900; 39 per cent study part time. Undergraduates account for 57 per cent of the student body, postgraduates 18 per cent and other higher education 17 per cent.

Access : Of young full-time undergraduates, 97 per cent come from state schools; 42 per cent are from lower social classes and 13 per cent from neighbourhoods where the participation rate is less than two-thirds the national average.

Retention : 22 per cent of full-time undergraduates drop out by the end of their first year, Hefce says.

History : The University of North London began life in 1896 as the Northern Polytechnic Institute. It offered courses ranging from English, mathematics and chemistry to machine construction, plumbing, dressmaking and millinery. In 1911, the institute offered evening classes that led after five years to a degree recognised by the University of London.

In the early 1970s, the Northern Polytechnic merged with the North Western Polytechnic and became the Polytechnic of North London, home to the far left, which seized control of the institution.

In 1992, the polytechnic won the right to the title of university and the ability to award degrees.

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