The very model of a merger

January 22, 1999

Loughborough College of Art and Design faced perhaps its greatest creative challenge last year: a merger with its neighbour university.

The move, which took three years from conception to completion, is being held up by its architects as a model of collaboration, a public exhibition of the science and the art of a successful merger in higher education.

Considering the location of the college, just across the road from Loughborough University campus, the union of the two may not seem surprising.

But the cultural and managerial make-up of the college, in essence a teaching monotechnic with strong specialists areas of work in art and design, were miles apart from its relatively large, science and research-focused suitor.

The college, now a school of the university, was also not in need of financial or academic help. Many mergers are in effect take-overs; but with top quality assessments under its belt and a healthy bank balance, the college was not about to get swallowed up. It had already resisted pressure from the former Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council to merge with a university in the 1980s. It was therefore determined that any match-making would be on its own terms.

Terry Kavanagh, principal of the college for the past two years, said: "We had to know what we wanted out of the situation. We had to gauge whether or not the university would support our aspirations."

Those aspirations, he said, were about "enhancement" of what the college already had to offer.

"As a school of art and design we had a good reputation nationally and internationally. Although that is very good, the opportunity to engage at postgraduate level, to work with the emerging technology, and the fact that our own practice is being influenced by what is happening in other disciplines, made the idea very attractive to," he said.

According to David Wallace, Loughborough's vice-chancellor, the university had similar motives for a merger.

"We wanted to broaden what we had to offer by including a wider range of subjects, particularly in the arts and humanities," he said.

Heads of both institutions are looking forward to opportunities now opening up to bring together creativity, technological know-how and facilities.

Their strong alliance could put Loughborough in a more competitive position in areas such as design.

Professor Wallace said: "We now have the complete range of design competencies: from creative work in the school of art and design, including prototyping, through to hard engineering in the university. We ought to be able to put together projects with a very interesting spin as a result of that."

From the art school's point of view, access through the university to emerging technology adds an interdisciplinary dimension to creativity, which has become essential in today's fast-moving art world. Professor Kavanagh points out that PhD students are now coming through for the first time working on virtual reality projects: a medium that will be easier for students to work in with the support of researchers at the university.

Professor Kavanagh said: "It is still possible and appropriate at undergraduate level that some of the disciplines in art and design can be taught without advanced processes. But there comes a point when a lot of the emerging technology is helping us to explore ideas more quickly, often in terms of presentation and visualisation, in a way that we have not been able to do before.

"You have to have the opportunity to discuss this with people who are experts in this technology. It is therefore a great advantage for us to be working so closely with the university."

Having agreed on the mutual benefits of a merger, however, managers of both institutions had to tread carefully to see it through. The college had to adjust from a vertical to a horizontal management structure, which meant most staff had to get used to taking on more managerial responsibilities.

They also had to convert courses to the university's modular system, and cope with the cultural shift of becoming part of a larger institution. The overall cost of the merger was in the millions, said Professor Wallace.

"The cost for them to change their courses was immense, because every staff member had to remodel their courses. But if you do not do that you do not gain the synergy of merger," he said.

The transfer of staff has been relatively painless, with no teaching staff redundancies and only one academic taking early retirement.

The smooth transition was partly down to the fact that the university and college had already undergone an "academic merger", matching up areas of provision, two years before. The process was conducted openly, Professor Kavanagh said.

"If you are working with someone for two years on a project like this you would expect the defences to be up at some point, but I don't think they ever were. It has been a totally open process, which is why it has worked."

The next challenge for the school will be to maintain its distinct identity within the larger institution: in itself, something of an art.

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