University mergers loom

January 19, 2001

Students will have fewer universities to choose from in future as growing pressures force institutional collaboration and merger, a senior vice-chancellor predicted this week.

Sir David Watson, vice-chancellor of Brighton University and chair of the Universities UK longer-term strategy group, said the number of universities would shrink from the current 114 - counting the constituent colleges of the universities of London and Wales - by the end of the decade.

He described the restructuring as a "defensive position" in the face of financial, competitive and government pressures. He said that the government sought a "universal mission" for all universities in such key areas as access and widening participation.

Sir David, who was speaking before next week's UUK conference on cooperation and collaboration, declined to put a figure on the reduction in numbers.

But he predicted: "We will have fewer separate institutions. How that pans out depends on the question of who is going to lead these processes and how."

Sir David drew a distinction between bottom-up pressure on universities to form strategic alliances, for example to enhance research capability, and top-down intervention by government.

Some of the pressures, mainly Department for Education and Employment policies such as widening participation, could create a "reverse mission drift".

Older universities might feel obliged to adopt many of the mission priorities of the post-1992 institutions, he said. For much of the 1990s, many new universities pursued the old university format of subject breadth and depth.

"David Blunkett and the DFEE are now very keen on a universal mission for higher education, whereby everyone has to have a widening participation strategy and reach-out strategies.

"(Universities) can no longer carry that forward by saying that they have their own niches. And that raises the question of why (do we need) so many higher education institutions."

Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chairman of the Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "There is much to be gained by greater sharing of resources, which can go a long way without being a merger."

Stephen Marston, director of institutions and projects at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "Institutions can do things more cheaply if they have only one set of overheads, and the student experience may be enriched by closer collaboration."

However, Graham Spanier, president of Penn State University in the United States, who will also speak at the conference, said the pressures of globalisation were more likely to lead to strategic alliances than to mergers.

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