Valuable characteristics of small and specialist higher education colleges will be lost if such institutions are forced into mergers, a report warns.
The 39 higher education institutions in the UK with fewer than 3,000 students make a significant contribution to diversity, access and widening participation in the sector by providing more choice, flexibility and support for students, researchers have found.
Eleven per cent of students at these colleges said they would not have entered higher education had such institutions been unavailable to them.
A project report for the Management of Small Higher Education Institutions Network (Mashein) says that small institutions are not as financially weak as is often assumed, and their size allows them to adjust rapidly to external demands.
Although small institutions account for only 3 per cent of student numbers overall, in some subject areas they educate a significant proportion of students. They make up a quarter of provision for veterinary science, agriculture and related studies, and 16 per cent of provision for art and design.
The report warns that these benefits could be lost if an "apparent assumption" in the government's higher education white paper that further mergers in the sector are desirable is followed through.
It says: "By situating mergers in the context of 'rationalising resources'
and 'cost effectiveness', the white paper overlooks any added value that the current institutional mix offers the sector, even if there are savings to be made via some forms of collaboration."
The Mashein project, supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England's good management programme, has enabled productive collaboration between more than two-thirds of small institutions, the report says.
But participation in collaborative activities should not be taken as an indication that institutions are en route to merger.
"It is wrong to assume that deep forms of collaboration such as merger are not only beneficial to small institutions, but necessary. The diversity that small institutions offer enhances the richness of the higher education sector, and the contribution made by these institutions should not be underestimated," the report adds.
Mashein institutions and the Standing Conference of Principals are planning to use information gathered for the report to defend the academic and financial independence of small institutions.