Various global, European and national developments have resulted in a reorganisation of the Finnish higher education system. The purpose is to promote a more nationally and internationally competitive network of higher education institutions, enhance quality and identify and recognise strategic areas in research and education.
Similar developments have also taken place in other higher education systems in Europe during the last decade as the idea of what a global research university should be shifts from that of a collection of scholars to a stakeholder organisation.
Previous studies of university mergers show that the consolidation of organisational and institutional cultures and management styles of the merging institutions plays a crucial role in how successful the merger is. Furthermore, a merger is dependent on the interaction of governmental macro-politics and institutional micro-politics as well as geographical distance.
A successful merger requires the development of new structures and ways of working as well as the promotion of new ways of thinking. The management of the university plays a crucial role in executing a merger and creating a new organisational culture.
Institutional leadership must create a vision of the merged institution that retains the strengths of the merging universities, but at the same time is responsive to external constraints. This vision and communication process begins in the planning phase, well before the actual merger takes place.
For academic staff a merger can have both positive and negative consequences. It can, for example, enhance professional identity by providing better academic career prospects. As a consequence of the reallocation of academic positions a merger may also create tensions between staff members.
Hence, one of the main missions of a university’s management during the planning process is to reduce uncertainty by communicating openly the aims and progress of a merger to staff and students and providing opportunities for academic staff to participate in decision-making.
Research into Finnish mergers
My research focuses on how Finnish universities are reacting to mergers from the perspective of their own academic work and their teaching work.
The target group consists of four university mergers (in brackets is the number of universities involved in each merger): Aalto University (3), the University of Eastern Finland (2), the University Consortium of Turku (2), and University Alliance Finland (3). The last-mentioned is an exception, however, as the three universities that form the alliance will not actually merge, but just enhance their cooperation and rationalise their activities.
Managers, academics and students were interviewed about their views and they raised several issues about the merger process. The key problems were:
One of the main issues that emerged from the research was the nature of the challenge facing those looking to form a new, joint organisational and institutional culture, when a new university is established as a consequence of a merger.
The interviewees stressed the key role of management in forming a new culture, but felt that quite often a merger was not transparently promoted. Decisions tended to be made by a small group of people and did not include the whole academic community.
It appears that universities wishing to get everyone on the same page and working towards a successful merger should focus on ensuring that all those involved are included in decision-making and feel that the process is as transparent as possible.
* Jani Ursin is a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
* This article is based on a presentation, “Challenges of University Mergers as Experienced by Finnish Academic Staff”, at the recent Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference.
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