Over the last couple of years, the Welsh Assembly Government have made it known that they believe there are too many institutions and that a good number have been ‘strongly encouraged’ to consider a merger. The extent to which this is encouragement rather than compulsion appears to be contested, but the funding council (HEFCW) have stated that there needs to be “fewer but larger and more resilient universities.”
In the South West of Wales, Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint Davids have already agreed to merge. Similar discussions between Cardiff Metropolitan, Glamorgan and Newport Universities in South East Wales appear to have stalled, with claims from Cardiff Metropolitan University that there is no obvious business plan to underpin such a merger.
Ultimately decisions about whether institutions should merge need to be taken with 3 key considerations in mind; will the student experience be improved, can the diversity of subjects be maintained under a merged structure, can cost savings be engineered? At a time when budgets are being squeezed, the pressure to consider mergers will undoubtedly increase – not just in Wales, but across the UK.
Interestingly, the population of Greater Manchester and Wales is very similar. Yet Greater Manchester has 4 universities, whereas Wales has 11. The suggestion from HEFCW, is that if you had a blank piece of paper and organised the Welsh higher education system you would not design the current system Wales has in place. It is this back drop which prompted action from the funding council in Wales to get Welsh institutions to consider the feasibility of merging to ensure that Wales can continue to have institutions which can compete with others across the rest of the UK.
In a university sector which can be resistant to change, I doubt mergers will be received with open arms. The history of discussions around merger in England have almost always ended in failure, apart from a handful of notable exceptions. But if the criteria I outlined above (student experience, diversity of subjects and cost savings), I think the case for examining mergers should start to be looked at across the sector with greater intensity. Rather narrowly, the only way in which some institutions may be able to compete within the UK, or indeed internationally will be if they have the scale and scope to benefit from economies of scale.
On such a controversial topic, particularly when there may well be jobs on the line, there will undoubtedly be lots of arguments against university mergers – many arguments I will agree and sympathise with. But at a time when public funding is coming under intense scrutiny, there appears to be an obligation for institutions to consider whether there are opportunities for possible mergers moving forward. If there are opportunities to improve the student experience, to maintain the diversity of subjects and to save money, I think it would be wrong to overlook the possibility.
Worse, if government policy which is clearly subjecting institutions to greater market forces and could potentially leave some smaller, more specialist institutions vulnerable looking forward surely it would be a disaster to see world class departments have to close without examining whether they could be saved under larger more robust structures? Of course many small institutions will continue to thrive under the new funding regime, and it should be noted that many of these smaller institutions do have the best student satisfaction scores, but it would also be complacent to think they will all survive under the current trajectory of government policy and the new funding landscape. Whether it is welcomed with open arms, or perhaps more reluctantly enforced, mergers should be properly examined across UK higher education, it may be the only way to save some small world class departments and ensure some institutions can continue to compete in the UK and internationally.