Long courtships leave space to backtrack

July 25, 2003

News of the collapse of merger talks between Bradford University and Bradford College has caused little surprise in the sector, writes Tony Tysome.

University managers who have been through the merger process, say merging two institutions is fiendishly difficult, even in the best circumstances.

Attempting to marry large further and higher education institutions to create a new kind of "comprehensive" university is bound to present greater challenges that might prove unsurmountable.

A letter issued to institutions two weeks ago by the Higher Education Funding Council for England warns that the extent of work and timescales involved "is often underestimated, which can make the process more complex and jeopardise the desired outcome".

It adds: "It is therefore essential that all parties are fully aware at the outset of what is required and plan their work accordingly."

Acknowledging the emphasis the government has placed in its higher education white paper on the need for closer collaboration, Hefce is trying to help institutions weigh up the pros and cons of a merger or strategic alliance and guide them through the process.

Hefce is unsure exactly how many mergers are being considered. But its revised financial memorandum requires institutions to involve the funding council actively in the early stages of a proposed merger. Guidance has been circulated on how to assess opportunities or problems and see a merger through successfully.

Rama Thirunamachandran, Hefce's director of research and knowledge transfer, says proposals must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but every one must be able to show that it will add value and that it has the commitment and support of managers and staff at both institutions.

He said: "You have to look at what you are trying to achieve through collaboration and then find the best mechanism to achieve it. In one case, where you are trying to create a lifelong learning institution in a deprived area, bringing an FE and an HE institution together might be the answer. In another, where a traditional university wants to work with an FE college, a strategic alliance might be the best way."

He accepts that merging an FE and an HE institution can pose greater difficulties because it involves bringing together different cultures, missions and staff on different contracts.

"We have to ensure there is no mission drift one way or another, otherwise the whole objective of the merger can be lost," he added.

Michael Wright, vice-chancellor of Aston University, which abandoned proposals to merge with Birmingham University two years ago, said mergers could collapse because the ground rules were not properly agreed at the outset, or were changed halfway through.

"Throughout the process you have to adhere to the principles you started with. Ours failed because our partner changed its view on the rules for double dissolution - dissolving both institutions before the merger. They wanted to take us in as part of Birmingham University," he said.

Professor Wright said it was difficult to see how an FE-HE merger could work, particularly under new rules for research assessment, which require 80 per cent of staff to be included.

"The breadth of provision from FE to postgraduate is so wide that it is very difficult for a single institution to overcome," he added.

A threat by 15 members of Manchester University's 200-strong court to scupper merger plans with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology by persuading other members to vote against the university's dissolution earlier this month shows how easy it is for mergers to run into difficulties. They would have needed only 60 votes against to block the merger. In the event, there were 18 against and five abstentions.

Brian Roper, chief executive of London Metropolitan University, created last year by merging the University of North London and London Guildhall University, warned that "everything you can imagine can go wrong" in talks.

"You could fail to agree on the name, the visual image, management structure, or fall out with the unions over jobs, fail to instil confidence in your students, or fall foul of operational problems," he said.

"If you can be satisfied that you have a shared sense of vision and mutual confidence, then you should do it quickly. The longer it goes on, the more disparate interest groups that are against it will find a common cause. It is uncertain for staff and students and it's not good leadership to leave that kind of uncertainty around for long. If we made a mistake, it was not going for the merger sooner."

Jonathan Nicholls, registrar at Warwick University, which has just announced a merger with Horticulture Research International, which has institutions at nearby Wellesbourne and Kirton, agrees that nothing is straightforward in the negotiations and time is of the essence in seeing them through.

He said: "It is surprising how complex it is. Long courtships give people the chance to change their minds. There are almost always redundancies involved and holding morale together is not easy. The bigger the merger, the more acute the effect will be. There is no such thing as an easy one."

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