Imperial plans a get-together

June 26, 1998

Banks do it, television companies have mostly done it already, car manufacturers do it with enthusiasm: and now higher education is doing it in bulk. As we show on page 6, mergers are in fashion, but is educational provision likely to be the beneficiary?

The biggest of the mergers now in prospect, in which Imperial College is grazing on Wye, the University of London's agricultural college, ought to be the simplest to finalise. They are both within the University of London, which will minimise the bureaucratic problems over issues such as working conditions that often bedevil merger proposals. And the possible research and teaching gains are immense. Imperial already has a strong presence in biology and biotechnology, and one of London's top medical schools, and the crossover with emerging agricultural technology could be significant. As well as a prime slice of central London, Imperial's assets already include a mine in Cornwall and a biology centre in Surrey - its claim to be Britain's answer to Stanford or MIT can only be strengthened by adding acres in Kent.

For some humbler institutions, mergers now being planned have the more modest role of allowing specialist provision to be maintained in a harsh climate. Moray House is the third of Scotland's five teacher training monotechnics to be absorbed by a university, in this case Edinburgh, and the other two will probably follow. A similar process is far advanced with nursing. It is a good thing academically for teaching and nursing to turn into all-graduate professions. And from the point of view of institution managers, it makes sense to merge rather than face a future in which a single-subject college is dependent on its ability to bring in students. This applies doubly in teaching and nursing, where research funding is modest and teaching brings in most of the money.

But even in academe, it would be foolish to ignore the motive often observed during takeovers in the private sector - doing deals and setting up new businesses is a much more delicious way of spending the working day than the grind of running an existing setup, and often the thrill of the chase is part of the reason for proceeding.

But top executives' enthusiasms for mergers, whether in the private sector or in education, often fail to carry the day. In education, clearance has to be obtained from government and funding councils, and in some cases (such as Hertfordshire University and Dunstable College) refusal can be on seemingly arbitrary grounds. Property values and financial stability must also be roughly on a par if a merger is not to seem more like a rescue. And as the Glaxo Wellcome/ SmithKline Beecham merger - abandoned because of personality clashes between the leading lights - shows, even a merger that looks sensible on paper can fail to work out if the people cannot get on.

But despite these issues, the number of further and higher education providers is set to fall: the aim should be to ensure that the bodies that result will be stronger not just fewer.

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