Lancaster University is still considering a “federal” union with another university, possibly a US college, to bolster its profile and research power, and other UK institutions are likely to be looking at similar “radical solutions”.
It was just over a year ago that Lancaster and the University of Liverpool shelved plans for a federal union that would have been like the structure of the University of California and would have included the award of joint degrees.
Despite that, Mark E. Smith, the Lancaster vice-chancellor, said that major change may still be necessary.
Professor Smith, who took over at Lancaster in January 2012 when discussions with Liverpool were well under way, said the plans were halted when “practical reality began to dawn”.
There was concern about the time-consuming process of “securing buy-in” from staff at both universities at a time of huge uncertainty, with the research excellence framework and volatility in undergraduate numbers under the new funding system looming.
“The obvious question is, will there ever be a right time for it?” Professor Smith added. “With all the changes occurring in the sector, discussions like this will go on. Liverpool would be one of the places we would continue to have on our horizons, but there may be others as well.”
Professor Smith said Lancaster could “continue to survive perfectly reasonably” on its own. But he added: “I would want Lancaster to sign up to the ambition to be a top 100 [university in the world rankings] and therefore a more radical future is probably what is necessary.”
He highlighted the turnovers of universities in the top 100s of various world university rankings, including the list published by Times Higher Education.
“There’s a remarkable number with turnovers above £800 million,” Professor Smith said. “Lancaster’s turnover is about £200 million. Very few UK universities are above £500 million. There’s a broader question for the UK sector in terms of the scale argument.”
He also noted the increasing tendency for UK research funding to be allocated to larger institutions, including Research Councils UK’s decision last year to award £10 million in open-access funding to institutions based on their gross research income. There are “more and more [funding] calls just being filtered crudely to start with in terms of size. We simply don’t get a chance to bid,” Professor Smith said.
To increase Lancaster’s size and enable it to compete more strongly, would a merger or federal structure be most likely? “I wouldn’t rule anything out. I think the preferred option is a federated answer,” Professor Smith said.
Such a model would enable retention of “the identity of the individual component universities, while at the same time [being able] to benefit from some of the size issues”, he argued.
Professor Smith said Lancaster was looking at potential partners in the UK and overseas, adding: “If it were an overseas country, we would prefer it to be North American.”
He noted that while a US partner would raise Lancaster’s world profile, it would not address the UK research funding issue.
Looking to the UK sector as a whole, he added: “I can’t believe there are not other universities who are thinking about possible radical solutions.”
Same name, different game: Two marks make their marks in contrasting professions
Mark E. Smith, the Lancaster University vice-chancellor, has reaped unlikely benefits in his research record through sharing a name with the famously volatile frontman of cult post-punk band The Fall.
For the avoidance of doubt, Lancaster’s Mark E. Smith is not the Mark E. Smith whose principal comment on higher education was Hey! Student, whose lyric promises “Hey student, you’re gonna get it through the head, I said.”
That may not win Lancaster rave reviews in the National Student Survey.
However, Professor Smith said that, during his time at the University of Kent, one of his research paper abstracts was “read out on Radio 1. Someone sent it to [the late Radio 1 DJ and huge Fall fan] John Peel and said ‘This is what Mark E. Smith does in his spare time’.”
Later, at a conference, Professor Smith was approached by David Antonelli, a Canadian academic who is now professor of hydrogen research at the University of Glamorgan. Professor Antonelli was working on catalytic converters for cars and was interested in Professor Smith’s research, which was focused on measuring the responses of nuclei to magnetic fields to look at the structures of materials. The two published a research paper together, looking at the structure of the walls of nanotubes used in catalytic converters.
Professor Smith recalled: “It was only after the paper came out that [Professor Antonelli] told me the truth. He said, ‘I’m an absolute nut for The Fall. And I always wanted to write a paper with Mark E. Smith as one of the authors.’”