Saturday, 24 September 2011

Mergers and restructuring in Scottish higher education

How many universities does Scotland need?

That's not a question we have needed to ask for quite a while, and the country has a very long tradition of valuing higher education and fostering some very high quality institutions. This week's bombshell from the Scottish Government, coming down to the universities concerned via the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), will bring this whole debate about the number and size of institutions right out into the open. The casus belli, if I may put it that way, was the decision (and there's no other way to describe it) that the universities of Dundee and Abertay Dundee should be instructed to enter into immediate discussions with a view to merging, a decision that was communicated in a letter from the SFC to the two institutions.

Both institutions profess to be 'totally surprised' by these developments, as well they might. And senior people at Dundee have already said that while they will examine the proposed merger, they would only want to go ahead if it makes 'academic and financial sense' for them. No doubt this is true, but I would bet that the SFC has ways of making the merger look like 'academic and financial sense'.  We shall see, and probably fairly soon. I can't imagine the institutions being allowed to mull the whole idea over for a couple of years........

And what's in it for the Scottish government? Well, it's hard to see why they would push for the merger unless they anticipated some real cost savings to come through, meaning, I expect, job losses at all levels. This hasn't been said yet, but the announcement surely has no rationale otherwise.

More interestingly, the announcement raises questions about universities elsewhere in Scotland. For Aberdeen has two, Glasgow and Edinburgh both have four universities (including the University of the West of Scotland in Glasgow's). Will these numbers prove to be sustainable, and who might be next on the SFC hit list? In these days of spending cuts, it would be surprising if the merger proposal already announced turned out to be the only one. In the past, several Scottish Universities have sought to grow by merging with various colleges - sometimes for good academic reasons, sometimes simply seeing security in greater size. Now we can expect to see university-university mergers, as the Scottish Government seeks to square the circle of preserving the strengths of Scotland's university traditions, while nevertheless cutting system-wide costs. Difficult times lie ahead, I think.

Meanwhile, what are other institutions to do?

In some ways the situation for our universities is a bit reminiscent of the problems firms faced when the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991. At the time, some firms I visited were saying, 'we don't know what to do, we are waiting for our next plan instructions', but other, more forward-looking firms were already looking around for new partners and markets, and were determined to survive in the new environment. So what will our universities be doing now? Perhaps some will sit and wait, hoping the SFC never notices them, never sends them 'that letter'. Others might be more strategic and pro-active, picking out good partners and going for them long before any official intervention from on high.

Given all this, we might now expect a mix of more or less forced mergers, plus some cherry picking by stronger institutions. This cannot be an easy or comfortable time to be running a university up here in Scotland.

No comments:

Post a Comment