Mergers might ‘never succeed with an elected rector’

Having an elected rector could be a barrier to university mergers succeeding, a leading expert told the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance in Education, or NOKUT, last week.

Experts on university mergers in other countries were invited to add to the national debate on government plans to merge 14 universities and colleges into five new universities or university colleges, when NOKUT, which is a governmental agency, held its annual meeting in Bergen on 19-20 May.

“How to create quality through mergers? How did it succeed/fail?” were the questions addressed by the speakers, Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group in Stockholm and Professor Jens Nørgaard Oddershede from the University of Southern Denmark where he was rector from 2001 to 2013. Oddershede was also head of the Danish Rectors’ Conference from 2005 to 2013.

Melin is an expert on university mergers with Technopolis Group having been involved as consultants in two Swedish university mergers, and Oddershede said at the conference that his university had experienced 11 fusions with other higher education institutions since 1998.

The presentations are streamed and can be seen on the NOKUT conference webpage (In Danish/Swedish only).

Debate in Norway

At the centre of the Norwegian debate on university reforms through institutional mergers, as covered by University World News, is the question of whether Norwegian universities shall have an elected rector as head of their university board, which is one option today, or if the rector shall be appointed by the university board, whose external members shall be appointed by the Ministry of Education and Research.

There is also heated debate on the question of how many external representatives the board should have.

The Ministry is going to present the reform plan to parliament later in 2015, and it is not clear if the issue of whether a rector should be selected by the university staff or appointed by the board will be decided upon by the parliament.

Asked by the conference moderator what he would advise as a result of the important experience he had gained through the work with university mergers at the University of Southern Denmark, Oddershede said: “I know that it is not politically correct to say this here in Norway, but those mergers would never have succeeded if there had been an elected rector at the helm of the university.”

Learning from other mergers

Today, the University of Southern Denmark has a scientific staff of 2,300, a technical and administrative staff of 1,500 and an annual budget of DKK2.9 billion (US$429 million), where one billion comes from external income to the university.

At the first merger between four higher education institutions in 1998, the old Odense University had 10,500 students and 5,000 staff members. Oddershede said that the first merger initiative was undertaken by the university itself, as a strategic move to gain control over the process of mergers from the start, since the Ministry had announced that its plan for further concentration of higher education institutions in Denmark was a high political priority.

All processes towards a merger went reasonably well, Oddershede said, until the name of the merged institutions was going to be chosen. The branded name ‘The University of Southern Denmark’, which today has become a new regional entity in Denmark, was first met with fierce resistance by the staff of the old Odense University, who had strong feelings about seeing the name of the town disappear from the name of the university.

Oddershede said that he was convinced that the university mergers had been an advantage both for the university and for Denmark, and that the major precondition for a successful merger was the strong backing from the ministry.

Melin spoke about the merger of the small Gotland University College with the oldest Nordic university of Uppsala on 1 July 2013, and the merger creating the Linnaeus University in 2010, both of which were monitored and advised upon by Technopolis Group. Both were reasonably successful.

Melin was also asked by the organisers to report on a merger that had not been a success, and he reported on the “painful merger” at Sichuan University in China in 1994.

Among the experiences Melin had encountered was the point made by Oddershede, that if a change of name of an institution is on the agenda, this should be solved very early on in the process.

“The issue has a tendency to be more complicated and conflicted than one might think,” he said.

He also argued that if two or more institutions merge, there will be at least one rector that will not be a rector anymore, and that this matter had to be addressed as early as possible in the process.

He said it is important to involve students and staff early on in the merger process, even if it may be difficult to avoid a certain amount of gaming, and that the relative lack of staff involvement in the Danish merger processes had resulted in frustrations, “sometimes significantly so”.

Melin said that the management staff should be appointed early in the process, and that the speed of the activities should be carefully considered from the start.

Of the Sichuan merger, Melin said that all critical factors favoured a merger between Chengdu University of Science and Technology and the “old” Sichuan University. So what went wrong?

He said there was no integration. The merger was not anchored among staff and students, who were faced with the decision after it was taken. And even after the merger the two institutions were represented in the new university organisation based on their old identity, he said. The report of the Chinese mergers was published in the Journal of Educational Development in 2007.