Several heads forecast a Durham-Newcastle research superpower, Anna Fazackerley reports
Vice-chancellors are predicting that Durham and Newcastle universities may revisit plans to merge, creating a new university superpower in the North East.
Competitor research universities are keeping a close eye on the two institutions, both of which have recently appointed new vice-chancellors.
But Durham's deputy vice-chancellor was anxious to quash rumours this week, branding the idea "disastrous for the region".
Durham and Newcastle were one institution until 1963, and there have been recurrent calls for a "re-merger". The idea was firmly on the table two years ago, but no agreement was reached.
Several vice-chancellors have told The Times Higher that they believe a merger to be likely, following in the footsteps of Manchester University, which is now the biggest institution in Britain after a successful £285 million merger.
One influential university head said: "It is being talked about. When Christopher Edwards (vice-chancellor of Newcastle) and Kenneth Calman (vice-chancellor of Durham) have gone, maybe it will be easier.
"These discussions can be bound up in personalities. There are real tensions between the two institutions. But the best mergers are between competitors."
He added: "Durham is not having an easy time. One of the problems is it is physically trapped in the city. It can't take many more students as there is nowhere to put them."
A second vice-chancellor said: "A Newcastle-Durham merger is certainly something that is receiving a lot of speculation."
Newcastle and Durham are poised to sign a memorandum of understanding setting up a new joint North East England Stem-Cell Institute, and their medical schools already work together and share students.
Oliver James, provost of medical sciences at Newcastle, said: "Newcastle was one of the first science cities, and we perceive that very strongly as not just about Newcastle but about the region. It makes unbelievable sense for the two research universities to work together."
But he added: "While I think it is highly likely that the two universities will move closer together over the next two years, I think it is unlikely that we will do a full merger like Manchester's."
Durham's desire to remain a collegiate university was a deal breaker two years ago, and some observers predict that this would make any agreement impossible in the future.
Phil Jones, deputy vice-chancellor of Durham, said: "We are different types of institution. Durham feels different. The whole ethos is different.
"It would be disastrous for the region if both institutions were merged as you would submerge two strong institutions into one that would be weaker."
He argued that in research the two universities' strengths lay in different areas, with Durham excelling in chemistry, physics and maths, and Newcastle performing better in biosciences and medicine.
He said: "The opportunity to collaborate is not as strong as you might think. That is very much an outsider's view."
A spokesperson for Newcastle said: "At various times there have been discussions about whether to merge. But last time we looked at the Manchester model and decided it wasn't practical because of distance."
Next year, both universities will have new faces at the top. Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University in South Africa, will take over at Newcastle and Chris Higgins, head of clinical sciences at Imperial College London, will move to Durham.
Professor Brink added his support to the idea of strong and active higher education collaboration in the North East.
He said that a full-on merger process was not necessarily the best or the only way of meeting such an aim. But added: "It is a sensible question to ask."