The idea of merging your institution with another can be enough to make any university manager run for the hills. What to call it, who stays and who goes, who has to move where – the list of issues and potential problems seems endless. Nevertheless, one manager gave an positive account of his experience at the recent European University Association conference on governance in Barcelona.
Back in the late 1990s, higher education in London was made up of too many small universities chasing too few students, thus causing financial losses for some. The idea of a merger between the University of North London and London Guildhall University, two institutions with a similar ethos and traditions, was floated as a way of gaining critical mass and ensuring long term sustainability.
Negotiations between the two began and in March 2001 and plans were announced to create the then largest unitary university in London with some 37,000 students. The negotiations raised many unexpected issues, both academic and practical, according to Robert Aylett, academic deputy vice-chancellor of the new institution.
These ranged from agreeing on what exactly was the official definition of a student or a specific discipline, down to solving the mystery of why two identical IT systems chose to work in totally different ways.
Internal negotiations, particularly with staff unions, were hard. Finally, a deal was struck whereby university management promised no job losses as a result of the merger and academics agreed to new performance-related contracts.
"We went in with a larger workforce than we wanted to and allowed time to take care of it," says Aylett. "This was probably more humane than what usually happens."
For Aylett, negotiations must lead to final decisions: "Merging is a finite process. The goal is to create a new institution not an ongoing set of compromises."
On 1 August 2002, the new London Metropolitan came into being. Seven years on, the decision to merge seems to be paying off. Under intense scrutiny, the new university has passed all of its academic tests and is financially solvent.
Aylett has several pointers for anyone considering a merger. It is essential to maintain public confidence in academic standards. The new university must have a vision to convince staff and students to come onboard.
Finally, all decisions must be seen to be impartial: "Nothing and nobody is sacred and you can't cut deals with your favourite staff; you have to be ruthless while smiling," he says.
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