Alison Utley reports on plans for a super-university and a refashioned Northumbria.
Britain's first super-university came a step closer this week as the University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology agreed to enter phase two of their merger strategy.
Speaking publicly for the first time about the merger, Manchester vice-chancellor Sir Martin Harris said a radical academic vision would be hammered out.
"This is not an exercise in bringing together, say, two chemistry departments," he said.
"We are not planning to maintain conventional structures, we are going back to the fundamentals of how we carry out research and teaching and how we recruit students. This is what will drive our plans and it is crucial now that our academics are advising us about the future academic shape of the institution," he added.
The University of Manchester was established in 1903. Two years later, the Manchester Municipal School of Technology was recognised as a faculty of the university. In 1966, the title Umist was adopted and in 1994 it was granted authority to award degrees in its own name. Academic control by Manchester University ceased but it was not until 1999 that Umist decided to award its own degrees.
The merger still has to find favour with some staff, who are worried about lack of openness concerning the plans and about job losses.
John Garside, vice-chancellor of Umist, said the process was about the breaking down of traditional structures based on disciplines. "We are forming a new institution and therefore we do not necessarily feel obliged to continue with either way of working," he said.
If their governing bodies agree, both institutions could be dissolved in 2004 and a new university created with some 28,000 students and an annual turnover of £500 million.
The vice-chancellors believe the new institution, which would be the biggest outside London, would be better placed to compete globally.
Professor Garside said strong support from both academic communities was vital. He added that he was confident that any member of staff who wanted a job in the new institution would have one.
"This is a delicate balancing act because we are very conscious that we have two very successful historic brands... but at the same time we must move forward," he said.
But Joe Marsh of the Association of University Teachers at Umist said that despite a number of public meetings there were still questions surrounding the secrecy of the Dalton report, which originally recommended the merger earlier this year.
"We are finding it difficult to take things any further at present because we don't know exactly what we might face," he said. "It is unfortunate that at the very start of this process, there is a key document missing."
Trevor Dewse of Manchester's local AUT association agreed. "People can't help being suspicious, and while the merger is undoubtedly a challenge we should all be looking forward to, there are now nagging worries about hidden agendas," he said.
Both vice-chancellors insisted there was no hidden agenda. They said the Dalton report had not been published because debate had moved on from its original proposals.
In a document circulated to staff this week, Sir Martin said the two institutions had a spread of academic disciplines that was unsurpassed in the UK and that coming together would enable complementarities to be enhanced, administration to be streamlined and funding opportunities to be maximised.
But Sir Martin said that every level of both institutions would experience substantial change over a number of years and that there was a risk that the core business of teaching and research could suffer. He said creating the new institution would be "very costly", requiring significant external funding.
"The risks of turbulence, of loss of identity, of the disadvantages associated with size, would have to be clearly recognised and skilfully handled," he said. "If that were done the prize could be great."
Brian Everatt, the AUT's regional organiser, said an open debate was crucial: "A lot of our members are very nervous because they fear a period of job losses," he said. "We are seeking guarantees that include full access to the Dalton report to ensure proper consultation takes place."
The AUT was also seeking guarantees on any new contracts for staff, he said.
Students are split over the potential benefits of the merger. Many believe that combining departments will offer access to higher-quality facilities, others are anxious about the dilution of excellence.
"Umist has distinguished itself as a technical university that is renowned for its world-class research," one undergraduate said. "What attracted me here was the opportunity to be surrounded by other scientists instead of being flung together with psychology, sociology or art students."
Others have worries about the loss of the Umist name and the possible devaluing of degrees already awarded. "I am very upset about this," said a first-year chemistry student. "When I come out of Umist, I don't want to go to a job interview with a degree from a university that doesn't exist."
Another said the merger was "ridiculous" because competition between universities was what encouraged excellence. "Both universities perform well, so what's the problem? Leave things as they are and let's encourage more, not less, competition."
COUNTDOWN TO MERGER
* April - consultations with staff. Working groups convened to consider issues in detail
* May - budgets for phase two finalised and a strategic academic plan worked out
* June - financial plan formulated
* October - final academic and financial plans presented. If approved, the point of no return is now reached
* 2004 - full merger
Northumbria's bold bid
The new vice-chancellor at Northumbria University has unveiled a repositioning strategy designed to improve income generation and to halt a downwards spiral in applications. But Kel Fidler said rumours that a merger with neighbouring Newcastle University - also in the midst of restructuring after failing to meet recruitment targets last year - were unfounded.
Professor Fidler, who joined Northumbria from York last September, said a new emphasis on research and consultancy was central to his thinking.
"Having spent some 160 hours conducting a personal audit of the university's activities, I feel I have identified where our strengths and our problems lie," he said.
"We have very high-quality teaching here and a very committed staff but our applications have declined by 24 per cent," he added.
Northumbria's research record also needed improving significantly, he said.
The faculty system is to be scrapped in favour of 11 new schools and a new senior management team is being devised to support the changes. "This is about income generation and bureaucracy cutting - not cost cutting - and I am very much hoping to avoid job losses," he said.
More resources needed to be raised through industry to support research funding at Northumbria, which dropped by £750,000 last year alone, according to Professor Fidler.
"I want more academic staff to be engaged in research because if we are not interested in our subjects then we can't expect our students to be," he said.
A review of undergraduate programmes was under way. There would be more attractive courses available to students, more international activity and a push towards more regional marketing to contribute to the widening-participation agenda, he said.
A two-week feedback period is under way. A spokesman for lecturers' union Natfhe said staff welcomed the openness with which consultations were taking place.