University mergers need to confront identity issues

Recently the Russian government announced far-reaching plans to support 15 leading research universities in their efforts to achieve international competitiveness and have an impact on global university rankings.

Selected universities will receive special state grants for development after rigorous analysis of their current positions and in exchange for a number of institutional transformations in governance and academic systems.

It is expected that at least five Russian universities will be among the top 100 in the world by 2018. These plans are consistent with preceding governmental efforts to restructure the higher education system and develop world-class universities through centralised state initiatives.

New developments, mergers

Since 2006, nine federal universities have been established to become world-class higher education centres, integrating education, research and innovation and at the same time boosting regional development.

In 2008-11 a group of 29 universities competed to be awarded special status as a ‘National Research University’, which brings additional state funding for universities' development programmes with an emphasis on integration of teaching and research.

To a large extent these transformations – especially in the case of federal universities – included forced university mergers. So around a quarter of the candidates included in the new government programme are post-merger universities.

University mergers are a widespread tool for transforming higher education systems. They are indeed a global phenomenon. In the past two decades Australia, South Africa, the UK, Norway, China and many other countries reported the potential for or accomplished university mergers.

The Chinese experience is extremely important in this context, because Russia in many respects followed China in restructuring its higher education system.

It was the initiatives Project 211 and Project 985 that encouraged universities to merge in order to receive additional funding from the government. According to some estimates, approximately three-quarters of top Chinese universities are post-merger institutions.

But is a merger a good way to establish a world-class university? There is no clear-cut answer to this question.

Jamil Salmi in his oft-cited 2009 book The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities considers mergers of existing institutions as one of the strategies for developing world-class universities.

On the one hand, mergers provide opportunities to change university leadership and attract new staff at relatively affordable cost. On the other hand, Salmi concluded, it may be difficult to create a new identity out of different institutional cultures.

Identity formation

Are Russian post-merger universities with world-class aspirations experiencing problems with creating new, solid identities? What is the role of the state in the identity formation process?

Those were the main questions that stimulated a study of identity formation in the post-merger settings of four federal universities, conducted by a group of scholars from the National Research University Higher School of Economics.

The data have been collected through a series of in-depth interviews with university professors and administrators, surveys of professors and students, and the study of documents pertaining to merger processes.

The study has revealed some important and counterintuitive findings about the influence of the state on the identity of post-merger federal universities in Russia.

First, the study showed that the state is sending somewhat ambivalent messages about the nature of being world class, in terms of the scope of activity, the content of educational programmes and the direction for research and innovation.

On the one hand these institutions are expected to comply with strict state regulations; on the other hand they are required to be proactive and entrepreneurial. The universities are also pushed by the state to develop strong connections with local industries and the labour market, and at the same time to become global players in the knowledge economy, which requires a completely different strategy.

Second, post-merger universities develop different mechanisms to respond to messages and incentives from the state.

The main strategy for universities is to decouple the core processes of teaching, research, hiring and promotion (which remain relatively unchanged from the pre-merger situation), from the public representation of a solid identity of a university aspiring to be world-class.

This is achieved through the development of specific centralised boundary-spanning units – planning and strategy offices, quality assurance offices, PR offices – and the attraction of state-affiliated consultants to legitimate their programmes and policies.

The merger situation creates additional difficulties for changes at the level of core processes, because faculty members in many cases resist the new identity.

Thirdly, the most evident clash and conflict was found not between pre-merger universities’ identities – as Salmi suggested – but between the old identity of the university as having a regional mission (in most cases shared by the merged universities) and the new identity of world-class institution imposed by the state.

The latter is associated among professors and students not with high quality teaching, research and innovation, but with increased accountability, bureaucracy and a ‘ministerial’ culture.


Thus, in the Russian context, identity formation issues could be an additional bump on the road to academic excellence for post-merger federal universities. When the new identity of being a world-class university – communicated to universities primarily by the state – is unclear, it doesn’t promote any changes at university level.

In merger settings, faculty and administration are very busy with short-term issues around their new status and organisational restructuring, so it is hard for them to share this blurred identity and act collectively towards new ambitious goals. It is much easier to imitate changes.

So if the Russian government is seriously planning to develop a group of world-class universities, issues of identity formation are worth taking into account.

* Igor Chirikov is director of the Institutional Research Office at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Russia.