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University mergers need to be transparent and inclusive

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:

  • Lack of resources to carry out a merger: the interviewees especially highlighted the fact that a merger requires a lot of extra work, which is not compensated in any way.

  • Fear of losing academic identity in a merger: this was particularly highlighted by academics from small universities in a merger, as they feared being overtaken by the larger merging university. Losing their ‘own family’ was thus a major issue for some of the interviewees.

  • Concerns about undermining well-established teaching arrangements and methods: the major threat was seen as being the fact that a merger could easily mean a return to traditional teacher-centred mass lectures rather than student-based and interactive teaching and learning methods because the mergers would lead to larger faculties and departments with no additional resources to improve the teacher-student ratio.

  • Geographical distances between new campuses: this worry applied particularly to the University of Eastern Finland where the three campuses are very far away from each other with poor public transport connections. ICT was regarded as a solution for new teaching arrangements, but several interviewees doubted whether it could fully replace face-to-face interaction with students.

  • Increase in bureaucracy: several interviewees questioned the whole idea of a merger as their experiences so far had only resulted in an increase in bureaucracy in the form of additional administrative work.

  • Problems managing the merger: those who were responsible for managing a merger process felt that they lacked experience for carrying out such an endeavour. Academics (researchers and teachers) and students felt that the process was not managed properly and some interviewees even said that the merger was not managed at all.

  • Fear of job losses: some interviewees worried that in the long run a merger could lead to a reallocation of resources, with less productive study programmes being closed and people losing their jobs.

    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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