NETHERLANDS: Merger of top universities opposed

Plans for three major Dutch universities to merge are opposed by more than half of their academics and students, according to a survey published on Thursday.

The University of Leiden, Delft University of Technology and Erasmus University Rotterdam hope to collect more research money by cooperating intensively and may even merge in due time.

But they face strong opposition.

The survey shows that 61% of academics are against the merger. Only 7% of scientists and 10% of students think merging is a great idea. The survey was conducted by Erasmus Magazine, the university magazine of Rotterdam.

At Delft University of Technology even more people oppose a merger. A survey by the university newspaper Delta shows that 72% of scientists and students are against it.

Most people are concerned that the three universities - with 55,000 students between them - will become a gigantic moloch, destroying its constituent parts. They fear bureaucracy, redundancies and the loss of their universities' good names.

The three universities all have different areas of excellence. Delft is especially known for applied technology, Rotterdam for economy, management and medicine and Leiden for fundamental beta sciences, law and humanities.

"The specialties of the three universities complement each other," said the president of the executive board of Delft University of Technology, Dirk-Jan van den Berg. "By cooperating we could attract more research money, better scientists and students."

He emphasised that universities in emerging economies are getting better every year and the rich universities are getting even richer. "At the moment we are doing well in the rankings, and we want to keep it that way. In order to do so we should cooperate.

"We could, for example, set up research cooperation between biology at Leiden, nanobiology at Delft and medicine at Rotterdam. We will bring together world class departments, attract more research money and make the departments become better than they already are."

The three universities have stressed that it is too early to talk about merging.

"Currently we are looking at how different departments could complement and strengthen each other. We're not discussing a merger at the moment," said Jacco Neleman, spokesperson for Erasmus University Rotterdam. The survey held at Rotterdam shows that only 4% of academics and students oppose cooperating at all.

"There is definitely support for more cooperation," Neleman concluded.

Cooperation has been discussed, partly in secret, by the three universities since 2009. The discussions related to a strategic agenda that every university has to provide in May 2012 to Under-secretary of Education Halbe Zijlstra. The universities decided to develop this agenda together.

"The merging of universities has become an international trend," said Frans van Vught, internationalisation expert and former rector at the University of Twente.

"Several universities in Denmark, Germany and England have merged, for example. All for more or less the same reason: to compete internationally and to create a larger investment capacity, particularly in research.

"I believe the merging of the three Dutch universities could result in an excellent university. But only if they focus on bringing the best departments together.

"To be successful internationally as a university one has to be rich, rather than very big," Vught said.

Many oppose merging because of the poor reputation the Netherlands has regarding mergers in higher education.

In 2003 several universities of applied sciences (hogescholen) merged as Inholland, becoming an institution with 37,500 students. In 2005 an education inspection concluded that the level of education of several courses had declined. In 2010 the Dutch press reported cases of diploma fraud at Inholland.