University mergers are on the rise in Europe, according to a new report from the European University Association.
The research reveals that there were 55 mergers between 2009 and 2014, up from 25 in the five preceding years. Key factors driving consolidation include the desire to improve the quality of teaching and research, the need to strengthen the competitive position of a university and the aim of saving money.
The report, University Mergers in Europe, maps and analyses the incidence of mergers and concentration in the higher education systems of 19 countries.
It finds that there were 92 mergers between 2000 and 2015 and that the number “increased significantly” from 2007. Information for 2015 is incomplete, but 14 mergers took place in 2014, 12 in 2013 and eight in 2012, according to the report. This compares with just one in 2000, two in 2001 and three in 2002, it adds.
Thomas Estermann, director for governance and funding at the EUA and one of the report’s authors, said that 2013 and 2014 were “record years” for mergers, but that the phenomenon has grown continually in Europe, particularly in the past five years.
The report says that the upswing since 2007 is “notably due to the wave of mergers in Denmark in 2007 and to a series of individual mergers taking place in different countries”.
There were large-scale changes in Belgium between 2009 and 2011 in the French-speaking part of the country, and “university associations” were set up in 2013 in Flanders, while in France a series of mergers took place as part of a broader trend to create “university communities”.
Three mergers took place in Wales between 2010 and 2013. This consolidation was “very significant in relation to the size of the system” and was the result of “strong political will”, the EUA adds.
A plan to rationalise higher education in Greece by merging some institutions and closing others in the wake of the economic crisis was also implemented during 2013 and 2014.
“In other countries, mergers have been a more isolated phenomenon,” the EUA says.
The most commonly cited reasons for consolidation included geographical considerations (when nearby universities have complementary activities, for example); economic factors (such as a desire to strengthen an institution’s public funding allocations); or adjustments to respond to changes in the system (such as a need to avoid duplication of programmes).
The report, which also includes several case studies of universities that have gone through the process, finds that many institutions underestimated how long it would take to align procedures and cultures after merging.
Cost-saving should not be the “primary driver” for consolidation, the report advises, as savings may be possible only in the long term.
“The academic mission must take precedence at all times, and any disruption to achieving academic objectives should be justified by the results of the process,” the report says.
There was little evaluation before or after mergers, it found, which can make the process hard to manage.
The EUA is now developing a pilot merger mapping tool to flag up case studies that are relevant to universities considering a merger. It says that this will help institutions to benchmark themselves and foster “continuous practice improvement”.