Many mergers fall at the first hurdle, but, with a bit of 'soul', Manchester has found success, says Martin Harris
Much has been made of the failure of a number of proposed institutional mergers to reach first base - to get the general assent of those concerned to proceed. Much less attention has been focused on the fact that London Metropolitan University is up and running and that the "new" University of Manchester will come into being in a year's time. So institutional coalescence can be agreed if the circumstances are right.
The question is, what factors favoured merger in Manchester? First, there needs to be a vision that can be widely shared within and beyond the institutions. For John Garside of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and myself, the proposition was simple.
There must be very strong research-intensive universities in the English regions. Manchester could and should have one but was unlikely to be able to support two. The empirical evidence of the likely combined research strength of the new university, clearly exceeded only by four universities within the "golden triangle", convinced everyone of the attainability of that goal. I have little doubt that this was the reason why the overwhelming majority of academic staff supported Project Unity from the start. The two universities, despite their very different identities, found it easy to sign up to this central vision. But there were local factors too. Foremost was the decision to go for "double dissolution", that is, to create a genuinely new university rather than have one take over the other.
The two universities are adjacent, so the new university will have one campus from the start; they have comparable pay and pension arrangements; they have long shared facilities such as residencies, student support services and the like; indeed, they have an intertwined history. And once the broad vision was accepted, a pledge to avoid compulsory redundancies reassured the unions representing support staff. Student leaders too were in favour.
Then there was the reaction outside the institutions, from stakeholders who had been kept fully informed as the internal debate developed. The city, the region, local MPs, ministers, research councils, the private sector all spoke in favour of the proposal to create a world-class research-led university in Manchester. And there will be major financial support too over the coming years. That warm welcome reassured colleagues in the two universities that the decision they were contemplating was probably the right one.
It was also important that the single university be seen as an ally rather than a threat by other institutions in the Northwest. Our region's universities need to work ever more closely together to ensure that opportunities are seized and the socioeconomic position of our fellow citizens locally and regionally is enhanced, a task where much remains to be done.
It is perhaps worth saying a word about the merger process itself, as this issue surfaced in The THES a few weeks ago. The decisions, of course, lay with the two councils, the governing bodies - but neither John Garside nor I would even have put the proposal to our councils without the strong support of the senates - and the bodies that represent academic staff, who alone can turn the vision into reality. At a very late stage of the merger process, a few made much of where the "soul" of a university lies. I am in no doubt: it lies with those who undertake the research and teaching that shape a university and with those who develop its ethos. Academics at both institutions signed up to the vision of the new university - and therein lies the great hope for the future. The two senates made the commitment, the two councils ensured that, legally, financially and politically, the plans made sense, and our external stakeholders (constitutionally through the courts, but in reality much more widely) felt able to endorse the vision. The irrevocable decision to go ahead has been taken.
Of course, this is only the start. It has taken an immense amount of energy, internally and externally, over 18 months to reach this point, but only in five or ten years will it be entirely clear whether the new university lives up to its potential. All that can be said now is that student demand, home and international, undergraduate and postgraduate, has never been higher; research income is buoyant; a major capital programme is being put in place; and private sector enthusiasm, often tangible, greatly exceeds what John Garside and I expected.
The task now is to turn the vision into reality in every teaching and research group across the new institution, so that when Alan Gilbert arrives as first president, the momentum is irresistible.
Sir Martin Harris is vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.