Single mind suffers double vision

February 7, 2003

Following the union of Guildhall and North London universities, John Shaw looks at the pros and cons of merger

When universities merge, teaching staff might feel they inhabit a Lewis Carroll universe: the pieces in their chess game have been thrown in the air and someone is not just reassembling the board but changing the rules too.

The staff of London Guildhall and North London universities went through the looking glass last summer into the brave new world of London Metropolitan. Many of us in the task group charged with hammering out a coherent teaching-and-learning strategy could not be blamed for thinking at times that we were following the Red Queen's advice of running fast to stay still.

London Met is a key player in the government's widening-participation agenda and this has a strong bearing on our strategy, in particular the knotty problem of student retention. The new university is one of the biggest in the UK. With 13 main sites grouped into two campuses, London Met has more than 900 full-time and 1,000 part-time academic staff and 28,000 students.

North London and Guildhall have different histories, structures, practices, cultures and problems, so uniting the two is a potential minefield.

Deciding educational aims and objectives is the easy part - the devil is in the detail. We are confronted with an unusually dramatic list of opportunities and threats (see box, right). A merger may be an opportunity to break with the tired old routines of the past, but this requires negotiation and time. The teaching-and-learning task-group was confronted with an immediate practical problem: to get out a new prospectus by November and a learning-and-teaching strategy for the funding council by December.

Cultural differences can slow communication. Oscar Wilde once said that the Americans and the English have everything in common except their language.

Our experience is similar. For example, Guildhall has "course directors", North London has "subject leaders"; Guildhall has "lecturers in learning development", North London has "teaching-and-learning facilitators". Also, Guildhall has a decentralised, delegated approach to teaching and learning.

A central task-group produces broadbrush headings under which departments produce detailed plans. North London has a standard template to which all departments conform.

Once a broad strategy is agreed, it has to be implemented to make sense in the lecture hall or tutorial room. It is not enough to write jargon such as "learning outcomes" into documents. Strategy depends on finance, staff, computing and room resources, quality measures and systems and support mechanisms.

Difficult decisions have to be made. For example, does information technology supplement conventional methods or replace them? And we have to consider students who have no access to a computer at home.

Similarly, widening participation means considering how best to support non-traditional students. Should study skills be a dedicated module or spread over core modules? Should the centre decide what these skills are or leave it to subject departments?

If, as Wolverhampton and Huddersfield universities have decided, modular choice harms retention of students, should we rethink the system?

To answer all these questions we can draw on research from both institutions. But we also need to commission our own research based on our particular mix of students.

If teaching and learning is to be at the heart of the merger process, teachers must be prepared to engage and negotiate with a clear vision. We must know what is vital and what is not. We must network with the powerful and make them our allies. We are major players, not just pieces in the chess game.

John Shaw is principal lecturer in learning development, London Metropolitan University.


Merger manual

Opportunities

* To make education research a priority

* To look afresh at objectives and strategy

* To compare two cultures and combine the best of both

* To persuade staff to review curriculum, and assessment and teaching methods

Threats

* Management goes for a "quick fix" and increases control over staff

* Staff feel like pawns, manipulated, undervalued and demotivated

* Tribalism breaks out between staff groups

* Students learn to play off one group against the other

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