Students may scupper merger

August 4, 2000

New moves to merge Birmingham and Aston universities to create one of Britain's biggest institutions could founder on student opposition at Aston.

The two universities have set up a joint strategy group to report by December on the feasibility of "full institutional integration" - a first in English higher education - which would mean establishing a new institution with about 28,000 students and a combined income of Pounds 0 million.

But Aston's vice-chancellor, Michael Wright, told The THES this week that the merger "will not happen" if students and staff oppose it.

His comments came as Emma Browning, the out-going president of Aston's students guild, said it was "highly likely" there would be a student campaign opposing merger.

She said: "We understand why the discussions need to go ahead. But we fully believe Aston would be stripped of its assets and lose far more than it would gain in a merger. There are so many things going for Aston now that we wonder why staff and students would agree to it."

Aston's council met last Monday and Birmingham's two days later to agree the establishment of the strategy group, following 18 months of deliberations by a joint task group on proposals for closer collaboration. In a statement, the universities said the task group had concluded "bolder action is now needed if the full benefits of collaboration are to be achieved".

In April this year, Birmingham's vice-chancellor, Maxwell Irvine, told The THES he was already convinced that a merger should go ahead, but senior managers at Aston said they were still far from certain.

This week Professor Wright said he was now persuaded that "on an institutional basis there is a great prize to be won" through merger. The two universities made a "good fit", with similar outlooks and aspirations, and departments such as business, engineering, and medicine and health sciences that complemented each other well.

But he added: "Internally we have to be sure neither staff nor students would be disadvantaged by such a move. Unless staff and students decide this is what they want then it will not happen."

Aston's students are already unhappy with senior managers, following an internal dispute over a lack of student representation on key committees - a point raised by the Quality Assurance Agency following an audit last year.

Birmingham students are less likely to campaign against the move. But Tim Reith, the new president of Birmingham's guild of students, warned:

"Concerns have been expressed that a merger should not take place for purely financial reasons."

Both institutions are adamant that they are in good financial health and do not "need" to merge. Professor Irvine said: "You do not embark on this kind of exercise unless the indications are positive. Neither of us needs to do it."

However, Aston is carrying a Pounds 1.2 million deficit and Birmingham is proposing to axe up to 150 jobs to address a forecast deficit of at least Pounds 1.3 million.

Staff unions, perhaps still shell shocked by the prospect of merger proposals being openly considered after years of speculation, have responded cautiously - despite Professor Wright's admission that a merger would probably mean "some fallout" of jobs.

A statement from the Association of University Teachers at Aston said:

"Management tell us that it is business as usual and that discussions are in an early stage."

But Alistair Rae, president of Birmingham's AUT branch, said: "Our top priority is that there should be full consultation. So far there has been very little, and this is the first we have heard of a merger."

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