School swallows merger medicine

Council backs School of Pharmacy's union with UCL despite 'vociferous' opposition, writes Simon Baker

May 19, 2011

The only higher education institution in the UK that is devoted to the study of pharmacy is to become part of University College London after merger proposals that have opened deep rifts between academics were approved by governors.

After several months of often angry debate over the plans, the council of the School of Pharmacy, University of London voted by 12 to eight to merge with its huge neighbour in what was described as a "wonderful opportunity" by the institution's dean, Anthony Smith.

Professor Smith said the merger would put the school in the "best possible position" to tackle the challenges posed by funding reforms and the research excellence framework, partly by removing the overhead costs associated with running a small independent institution.

He added that he had been mindful of worries that the institution would lose its identity, but said the evidence from previous mergers involving UCL was that the school would be able to maintain its world-class reputation.

However, campaigners against the merger are disappointed that the council did not follow the same line as consultations with the academic board and staff - both of which found that a majority of voters opposed the move.

In a recent ballot of all but two academic board members, 58 per cent backed independence, 38 per cent opted for merger and 4 per cent were undecided. In a consultation involving about half its staff, 52 per cent favoured independence and 38 per cent backed the merger.

Separate consultations with the school's alumni and Fellows also showed that a majority of the small number of respondents favoured the status quo.

Ijeoma Uchegbu, professor of pharmaceutical nanoscience at the School of Pharmacy and branch secretary for the University and College Union, said the council was duty-bound to consider the academic board's opinion under the school's statutes.

She said the merger was an illustration of collapsing confidence among the UK academy's leaders, as uncertainty about the future had led them to "lose confidence in their institutions' ability to thrive".

Sally Hunt, the UCU's general secretary, warned that the plans were another example of the UK's "diverse economy of higher education" being "flattened out".

Professor Smith accepted that there was "work to be done" to heal the rifts opened by the plans, but said many academics were "genuinely excited" about working within UCL.

"It is fair to say that there has been a small group that has been extremely vociferous, but there has also been a middle ground with extremely supportive academic staff," he said.

Those in favour of the merger also pointed to a consultation with students that showed 88 of the 148 who responded supported the plans.

Lord Clement-Jones, chair of the council, said the merger had helped to secure almost £2 million of investment in more senior staff for the school ahead of the REF.

"The merger decision also means no job losses - something we could not guarantee should we have remained independent," he added.

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