Merger will give top London universities added clout

Two top British universities will join forces next week in a bid to become even more competitive on a global scale. University College London and the Institute of Education announced that they are merging from 2 December, a move that will create a new institution with more than 35,000 students.

It will make University College London, or UCL, the biggest higher education institution in London and the largest postgraduate institution in the United Kingdom, with 19,000 postgraduate students, over 11,000 staff and a combined income of over £1 billion (US$1.6 billion).

Although UCL and the Institute of Education, or IOE, are both colleges within the University of London they are also universities in their own right.

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge and is considered one of the world’s leading universities by the main ranking agencies.

The IOE, which specialises in education and the social sciences, was ranked number one for education in the 2014 QS World University Rankings. In the merger, which began with a strategic partnership in 2012, the IOE will become the UCL Institute of Education.

What the leaders say

“The driver behind this proposal is academic, prompted by the sense that the world-leading research undertaken by the IOE was highly complementary to many areas of work undertaken by UCL,” said Professor Michael Arthur, UCL president and provost, in a joint statement by the institutions last Tuesday.

“We believe this planned merger will deliver significant advances in the fields of social science and education, whilst further advancing the work both universities undertake to develop education across London.”

Arthur also acknowledged that, “in a period of growing global competition in higher education, this merger will enable us to position ourselves even more clearly as a global leader in this field”.

One key outcome is that five UK birth cohort studies will be housed together for the first time, forming the largest concentration of global expertise in this field.

Professor Chris Husbands, director of the UCL Institute of Education, said the merger offered the IOE “the opportunity to extend global influence, to work with our traditional stakeholders in schools and colleges in new and more imaginative ways, and the chance to build cross-disciplinary work across the full range of higher education”.

The rankings factor

Asked whether the amalgamation was a strategic move to improve the position of the combined institution in global rankings, IOE spokesperson Jenny Hogg said that “around the world, measures of quality – however imperfect, flawed and downright misleading they may be – drive student preferences, funders’ decision-making and government strategies".

“The linking of the two institutions will give IOE students and alumni greater recognition and enhance student employability,” she said.

However Richard Holmes, producer of the University Ranking Watch blog, doesn’t think that UCL will gain much in rankings. “But I suspect that the prospect of being part of a top 20 university in several rankings instead of being number one in only one subject ranking might be appealing for IOE,” he told University World News.

“The Shanghai rankings, which are heavily biased to the natural sciences, measure everything by size, except for their productivity per capita (PCP) indicator, so the IOE may add a few publications but it would have very few, if any, papers in Nature and Science and no highly cited researchers.

“So the benefit to the combined institutions would be minimal and might even be cancelled out by increasing the number of faculty and so reducing the PCP score.

“For the QS and the Times Higher Education rankings, the IOE could offer an increase in ‘votes’ for the reputation indicators. But UCL already has very good scores for this, so the combined reputation scores might increase but not by much,” said Holmes.