Missing the bigger picture

March 15, 2002

Don't get carried away with the mega-university - there will be a price to pay, insists Colin Clark.

The era of the mega-university has arrived. The recent announcement of the merger between Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology echoes reports from across the rest of Britain. Whether in Aberdeen, Bradford or London, it seems that higher education is having a serious rethink of how to position itself for the 21st century. After the 2001 research assessment exercise, and whether by alliance, collaboration or full-on merger, it is the fashion to cut a deal and think big. The logic is clear: immediate survival and future reward.

With the winners and losers of the 2002-03 funding allocations in England revealed, is this necessarily a bad thing? Is this not the time for struggling units to take stock and shake hands with neighbouring institutions? Joint statements proclaim that university life is now different, what with globalisation, technological changes and financial pressures. The need to compete internationally is paramount and British higher education must bring benefits to the knowledge society. From government ministers to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's chief executive, praise and support have been forthcoming for the mega-university. "Wasteful competition" will be a thing of the past and economies of scale will help most units survive and prosper. Even the Association of University Teachers has signalled its "cautious welcome". But is it really that simple?

When does a "bold and imaginative step" on merging, or a process of "strategic restructuring" to "remain relevant", simply become cost-cutting rationalisation by the back door? Many vice-chancellors will be pondering whether the doubtless eventual job cuts and the relative loss of autonomy justify the claimed benefits. In short, they will be wondering whether size really does matter. Do larger educational institutions always function better than small ones? Are they more efficient? Can they deliver the goods and not weaken both partners? What happens to diversity and unprofitable specialisms when viewed through the lens of a balance sheet?

What I have found most interesting in this debate is the Hefce approach to mergers: they are regarded as being neither "desirable nor undesirable". Hefce's "principles underpinning the assessment of merger proposals" begin by talking about improved academic programmes, quality and student access. Financial health and resources are mentioned, but the important message revolves around the "educational customer". So how will these reconfigurations impact on students? Will we see extended lecture halls with 1,000-plus undergraduates taught by demotivated staff on teaching-only contracts? Seminar groups of 50 taken by underpaid postgraduates? One does wonder about the centrality of student concerns in the merger business, and the National Union of Students has been strangely silent on the matter (or is it just not being heard?). Is this the advent, not just of the mega-university, but also the corporatised McDonalds-style degree? Pack them in and spit them out with minimum overheads? Will government ideas on widening participation and student funding keep up with such rapid restructuring?

So many questions. However, it is clear that this new reality is compelling most universities to examine the possibilities of strategic alliances. The Welsh Assembly's proposals for a geographical clustering of units is being explicitly tied to enhanced funding. This carrot-and-stick approach may find its way over the border to England and Scotland if reluctance and hesitancy slow the yellow brick road to progress.

We may soon see evidence that larger academic institutions fare better than smaller ones, whether the criterion is RAE scores, student numbers or financial security. But we need to look at the costs. There must be some, surely?

Colin Clark is a sociologist at Newcastle University.

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