Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Unravelling the Knotty Problem of College Mergers

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Unravelling the Knotty Problem of College Mergers

Article excerpt

To be successful, merging institutions must work hard to persuade staff and learners of the benefits

Governments have short memories. Politicians, trapped in the electoral cycle, are propelled by change. Former education secretary Michael Gove embodied the phenomenon with his pitch for leadership of the Conservatives, which proclaimed that his heart was "burning with the desire for change - not business as usual but a bold vision". Yet the very act of change increases the risk of repeating past mistakes, as George Santayana almost said.

Sadly, a college's grasp of history can be similarly relaxed, especially when it comes to mergers. According to a University of Warwick study of mergers between 1996 and 2000, the majority of colleges substantially underestimated the challenges the process would bring.

In 64 per cent of cases reviewed, there was a substantial and sustained clash of cultures between the two merging colleges. This was always underestimated and often ignored in the planning phase. Harmonisation of staff contracts, working conditions and management systems typically takes anywhere between three and 10 years. Yet colleges commonly misconceived the merger to be complete at the start of the process.

Colleges currently considering merging with universities might reflect on what happened in Harrogate, Reading, Lincoln and Penrith - cases where mergers between higher education institutions and colleges crumbled owing to the former's struggle to manage the unfamiliar FE provision.

The long list of universities that have extracted themselves prematurely from validation or franchising relationships with colleges is evidence of the frailty of relationships between different types of institution. That's not to say that the FE and HE partnerships now in play won't succeed - there are successful precedents, such as the University of Derby's role in Buxton and Leek College. But planners need to understand the factors common to success and failure if they are to make mergers work this time.

Consent and communication

The literature is clear: substantial cost savings from mergers are difficult to achieve. Robust evidence that merged institutions perform better than others simply does not exist.

This latest round of mergers, accelerated by the area review process, is heavily influenced by austerity. Colleges are converging to keep courses or campuses alive. Yet the evidence from the Warwick study is compelling: when the main intention of a merger is to save money, or respond to a funding body or regulator, the risk of failure significantly increases.

This is primarily because success is dependent on gaining the consent and support of other people, and that support in turn requires a compelling rationale. …

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