Beyond the headlines: Forced marriage

by Oct 03, 2011 No Comments

The Scottish Government’s recent paper on post-16 reform may well have sent a collective shudder down the spines of university principals.

Mike Russell warned “duplication” would be ferreted out, heralding collaboration as the future for higher education.

Within days of its publication, an ominous white envelope landed on principals’ desks at the universities of Dundee and neighbouring Abertay.

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) invited the two to merge, saying a decision was expected by the end of this month [October].

It sparked a furious backlash from student and staff unions concerned about the “dictatorial” demands.

And both universities have expressed dismay about the talks, with Dundee describing them as “totally unexpected”.

One serious concern is over the loss of academic independence for the sake of cost-cutting.

Abertay – dependent on 60 per cent of Scottish Government funding – is one of the UK’s smallest universities.

It is possible that Abertay could be swallowed up by a new sibling, which is six times larger.

While we’re in straitened economic times, without question, savings must be made.

But at risk is Abertay’s excellent academic standing in computer games and environmental science.

Some have also criticised the urgent nature of the request – particularly when a wider government consultation on mergers between colleges and universities will end in December.

Leading academic Lord Sutherland became the most recent voice in the debate warning of the “veiled threat” to each university.

The former principal of London’s King’s College and Edinburgh University said of the speculation: “I can’t think of a worse way of doing it. It looks like a merger by fax.” He told the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee: “How do you give five-weeks to draw up a plan for two institutions with very divergent systems, very divergent strengths, and, don’t forget, it’s the impact on Dundee as well as Abertay.” But with the SNP’s manifesto pledge for free tuition fees for Scottish students, a radical shake-up of the system is needed.

Mergers are no bad thing when done with the consideration necessary to preserve the distinctive features of an institution.

Resistance will always be met by sentimental attachment to academic tradition.

But streamlining universities and colleges, if done with care, could well uphold academic standards by strengthening certain courses through aggregation – without assimilation.

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