Improving the quality of education and research, rather than saving money, should be the primary reason for merging universities, according to an expert on higher education governance.
Enora Bennetot Pruvot, deputy director for governance, funding and public policy development at the European University Association, said that funding issues in several European countries have resulted in a “drive for rationalisation” in the higher education sector.
But the best time for mergers to take place is “when the resources are there”, she said.
In an interview with Times Higher Education, Ms Pruvot said: “A lot of systems see mergers as a way of saving money and look to mergers [when they have] the wrong conditions. They should be seen as an investment.”
She cited the case of Iceland, which considered merging universities during its financial crisis of 2008-11 but subsequently rejected the model when its “economic situation improved”.
In contrast, Aalto University in Finland, which was established in 2010 as the result of a merger between the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Art and Design Helsinki, was “well resourced” by public authorities and had a strong academic vision to be an “innovative university”, she said.
“If you don’t have the necessary resources [to make a merger work], what you have is higher diversion of resources internally and you disrupt the system more than is needed,” she said.
Ms Pruvot, who spoke on a panel on the topic of clusters and mergers as potential catalysts for internationalisation at the European Association for International Education conference on 13 September, also told THE that there had been several cases where university mergers had not succeeded, most often because “the academic case” for combining the institutions had not been present.
“A merger cannot proceed without a strong vision,” she said.
“Financial consideration has to come second, but it needs to be taken into account. Don’t do it for money, but with money.”
She referenced the Welsh government’s climbdown on plans to force Cardiff Metropolitan University to join a merger with the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport (now the University of South Wales) in 2012. Cardiff Met had described the plans as high cost and high risk.
In her eyes, however, this was not a failure but rather a “positive” example, she said.
“It is very important that it is possible to stop such a process if the conditions are not there, and clearly there was no buy-in from the university itself,” she explained.
“It also means that the university had the autonomy to say ‘no’. That is not a given in many other cases in Europe.”
Ms Pruvot added that institutions should identify “quick wins” that they can achieve shortly after completing a merger.
These could include increasing the number of projects that are submitted for competitive funding streams or attracting high-profile academics, she said.
“Even if those [wins alone] do not mean that your merger is strong and successful, they will help to strengthen the new institution and the new identity” in the long run, she said.