When two become one: universities and colleges merge

by Oct 31, 2011 1 Comment

Colleges and universities are facing the prospect of mergers in a bid to make efficiencies

At a time when Scotland is facing crippling youth unemployment and competition for university places is fierce, school leavers are anxious.

In September, the Finance Secretary announced a cash injection of £75m for universities from 2012-13, reversing an eight per cent cut last year. In contrast, colleges saw their budgets cut by 13.5 per cent over the next three years, losing out by around £70m.

The move presents a “bleak future” for Scottish colleges, warned John Spencer and Graham Johnstone, speaking for college principals in an open letter to the Education Secretary. And last month Mike Russell said he wanted to see college and university mergers where it made “educational and financial sense”.

While the prospect of merger will no doubt add to the strain already placed on colleges by economic gloom, the SNP has promised a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-yearold.

But against a sticky financial backdrop, and with Scotland’s colleges warning that up to 20,000 student places could be lost as a result, this pledge faces mounting difficulties.

“It’s time the Government made clear to every student, principal and parent how they plan to live up to their commitments,” NUS president Robin Parker told Holyrood. “The Government suggestion that more college mergers should be introduced is not a decision that should be taken lightly or decided upon quickly. Any decisions on mergers must be led by students and institutions and the focus must be on improving the quality of education.”

Colleges provide a fall-back option for those who don’t make it into university. Their core vocational function helps retrain the unemployed who have fallen out of work. And for those struggling to find work, they offer training in the necessary skills through teaching and strong relationships with local businesses.

But just last week Russell told the Education and Culture Committee the Government should begin to “force the pace” of mergers to ensure savings are made quickly, conceding that the ultimate decision is for the “bodies themselves”. Russell had previously indicated a more tepid desire to remove “wasteful duplication” across the sector by setting up regional groupings.

This fresh drive towards mergers, combined with the recently announced Griggs Review of college governance, spells robust change for Scottish colleges. But is it possible for the quality of education to be preserved as individual institutions face mergers, seen by many as a cost-saving measure?

Jewel & Esk College and Stevenson College are planning to merge by the summer of 2012. It is set to be the second largest college in Scotland, with a combined student body of 20,000, 1000 staff and a turnover of £50m. Principal of Jewel & Esk College, in Musselburgh, Mandy Exley is not taciturn about the benefits of merger.

“The sharing of good practice and the pooling of resources means that we can learn the best from the best,” she says. “Bringing together teaching teams means that we can raise standards and improve practice by learning from each other. It will also mean that progression routes for students will be clearer and planning learning pathways will be easier.

“The two colleges bring together a real diversity and breadth of curriculum at all levels. Each college has different strengths and bringing these strengths together will mean a better quality of experience for students.”

At last week’s Education Committee, Russell urged Edinburgh’s Telford College to resume talks with Stevenson and Jewel & Esk. Earlier this year Telford had declined to get involved in the plans.  Principal Miles Dibsdall previously voiced concern about the ‘Tesco approach’ to further education in the guise of ‘super-colleges’ in Scotland.

But Exley dismisses this view as short-sighted. “The key point about maintaining local access for students underpins an argument that colleges can continue to differentiate according to different student and local economic needs. Being bigger or having fewer colleges does not mean they will all be exactly the same. Learning needs to fit the learner and this is achieved at a local level.”

Both Exley and Brian Lister, Principal of Stevenson College, are confident that creating a new college makes economic sense. Exley claims it will bring £120m to the region’s economy. She points to a survey by KPMG in 2009 which says larger institutions have the advantage over their smaller counterparts in terms of financial stability and the delivery of economies of scale.

However, John Spencer, Principal of Inverness College, warns that savings by merger are only a partial solution to squeezed college budgets. “Potentially, there are in some cases, savings to be made with mergers. The amount of savings are not normally huge. And the amount of savings are not automatic, in other words, not every merger will generate significant savings. So whilst it might as a solution make a contribution to addressing reduced funding, it actually certainly doesn’t provide the complete solution.”

Russell wants to see Scotland’s 41 colleges come together in “regional groupings”, and critics say the country is overrun with further education institutions. Spencer feels the ratio of learners to colleges is “reasonably well matched” in terms of population and access. However, he does see some scope for “rationalisation of organisation”.

But Spencer warns that the merger process is one which must be carefully considered. He says: “My key concern is that in that process of determining what the landscape looks like in the future, we actually look at the effectiveness of merged institutions or mergers and ensure that we don’t create ineffective organisations.”

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) is somewhat sympathetic to the call for merger. “The EIS has not accepted that there are too many FE colleges in Scotland, or that the current number of colleges has adversely affected the quality of provision of training or education in Scotland,” says David Belsey, National Officer for Further and Higher Education.

He adds that the EIS will support a merger if there is a clear “educational rationale” for it, if there are “no compulsory redundancies,” and if there is no reduction in the level of learning activity delivered. However, Belsey voices concerns over the Government’s recent post-16 green paper. “It’s very clear that the mergers are being driven by the need to make financial savings,” he says.

“The Cabinet Secretary is now saying that the rationale for merger is economic and educational. That is something that the EIS cannot agree to, as we would object to mergers carried out mainly for financial savings. As far as the EIS is concerned, the sole criterion must be educational rationale.”

Contrary to college budgets, universities will enjoy a more fruitful three-year financial term. But shortly after the Education Secretary hinted that universities should also consider merging, the news broke that rushed talks over a possible merger of the universities of Abertay and Dundee were to take place at the behest of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC).

The move provoked outrage from student and staff unions and prompted Lord Sutherland to condone the consultation as a “merger by fax”. The former principal of the University of Edinburgh said the institutions had “very divergent systems and strengths” and any merger could not be done in “five weeks”. Russell insisted the merger of the two was not inevitable, adding it was only “one possible outcome” of the discussions.

“It is unfortunate that the Dundee and Abertay proposed merger seems to have been initiated by a fax from the SFC, rather than discussions driven by the two institutions themselves,” said Belsey. “Bottom-up mergers, in which institutions choose to work and explore options jointly, are more likely to succeed than externally driven mergers, which would be top-down mergers with little staff buyin.”

The news also struck a chord with academics nervous to protect the identity and ethos of their respective institutions. Fears mounted that Abertay, one of the UK’s smallest universities, could be subsumed by neighbouring Dundee which is six times larger. Also at risk is Abertay’s excellent academic standing in computer games and environmental science.

Indeed Robert Gordon University and the University of Aberdeen considered collaborating earlier this year, but eventually decided against it. Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski said the talks were abandoned as the two universities have “very different missions” and it would be difficult to sustain a merger within that context.

Professor Seamus McDaid, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal of the University of the West of Scotland, agrees that mergers potentially pose a threat to academic independence. “We do praise the diversity of the university sector in Scotland,” he says. “We would be making a mistake to lose some of that diversity. It is a strength we need to be careful with. That’s not saying that mergers can’t happen, but academic rationale should underpin it.”

Having overseen two mergers, the most recent of which was the integration of Paisely and Bell colleges into the University of the West of Scotland, McDaid stresses that merger should be driven solely by the organisations themselves.

“The academic rationale was absolutely upfront in both the mergers I was involved in,” he says. “You can generate cost savings from merger. Those wouldn’t be realised immediately, but in my view, that’s a side issue. The issue is about creating an effective learning process for the learners themselves and for the organisations that we work with in the private sector.

“I think the biggest pitfall would be if the academic community, particularly the staff but also the students, did not see the rationale, did not see the benefits they could accrue from it. If you then get people going into the trenches – we saw that happening and it became an almost impossible process to manage.”

But the academic benefits for his university are far from insidious, says McDaid. “By increasing our scale we’ve got bigger academic units, which can provide a better learning environment,” he explains. “We have improved our financial situation therefore we’ve invested in our infrastructure. We have embedded ourselves well with major employing organisations within our footprint. We have increased our international profile, and that will be something that we continue to do in the next four or five years.”

Identity, considers Professor Chris Breward, the new principal of Edinburgh College of Art (ECA), is sacrosanct to academic institutions. And the merger of ECA with the University of Edinburgh is a good test case to analyse in terms of two very different institutions working to complement each other.

“ECA is an art school within the university,” says Breward. “The university has many other different schools – divinity, veterinary, medical, architecture. I don’t think there’s been any problem retaining distinctiveness in a broader university context.

“What I’m really impressed with is the way that Edinburgh University allows for a distinctive autonomy and a kind of distinctive ethos, especially if that underpins the research culture of the place. There’s not a one-modelfits- all, which I think has possibly been the problem with mergers down south which haven’t been so successful.”


Merger: ECA and University of Edinburgh

By Paris Gourtsoyannis

Dire warnings have been issued and rebutted over the Government’s agenda for colleges, yet its outcomes are already being played out in the heart of Scotland’s capital. On 1 August, Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) was officially merged with its larger neighbour, the University of Edinburgh. While the circumstances were unique, and the outcomes at this early stage still uncertain, the concerns raised by the merger in some quarters sound a warning for similar endeavours in the future.

Merger was first mooted in February 2010, with the promise of “full consultation” and no action before 2012. Before the end of the year, however, the true position had emerged: ECA had lost over £10m in its botched purchase of new buildings at Evolution House, and faced imminent financial collapse. The college was refused the right to sell off a car park to raise cash by the Scottish Funding Council, which declined an invitation to provide comment for this article. “It felt like merger was the only option,” says Stephen Hunter, a lecturer and local branch official for the EIS union.

Hunter says that educational considerations were looked at in planning the merger, but only in the context of the financial situation “hanging over the college.” However, whatever planning did take place may well be irrelevant, according to Professor Dugald Cameron, a graduate and former principal of Glasgow School of Art and a vocal opponent of merger at his institution and ECA. He calls art colleges “a home for lost dogs”, and suggests that the college and the university have incompatible goals.

“My basic argument is: ‘Do you want me to go to the senate of the university and argue for conceptual art against cancer research?’ Within a school of art, within an independent institution with your own board, you’re talking in a community of artists and designers and architects, so we’re not in competition with other things, which may seem generally very worthy.”

Cameron makes the point that when small, specialist colleges first sought partnership with universities to accredit the degrees they handed out, ECA was rebuffed by the University of Edinburgh because officials there felt the institution wasn’t competent to deliver art courses.

“In an art school, you have to have a great deal of freedom. In many ways, they are special places where people can be highly creative, and being highly creative doesn’t usually fit in with the conventional higher education system. Universities are not good at that,” says Cameron.

Newly installed ECA principal Professor Chris Breward shares Cameron’s view on the exceptionalism of art school, but is confident that the merger will protect the distinctive personality of the college. “We have to ensure we preserve it,” he says.

“Art colleges have a very special identity and I think that comes down to the students and the staff and the sort of work that’s produced. It’s also to do with the buildings, which accrue a kind of memory. I think all of those three things are in place.”

Nonetheless, staff and members of the wider community clearly have concerns about the future of their institution, expressed in the form of rumours surrounding potential changes. One, at least, is untrue: applicants will continue to supply a portfolio of artwork, and will not be judged on their UCAS applications alone. “Portfolios are still being accepted as part of the application process to ECA courses. The process is the same as before the merger,” says an Edinburgh University spokesman.

But Cameron can’t be dissuaded that eventually, the distinctiveness of ECA will be lost. “When I was head of design in the 70s, 80s, there were far, far more independent art schools around the UK. These have all disappeared off the radar; they became subsumed within polytechnics and their ethos changed. Where’s Birmingham College of Art? Where’s Wolverhampton College of Art?”


Merger: City of Glasgow College

By Paris Gourtsoyannis

A product of the merger of Central College, Glasgow Metropolitan College and the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies; the City of Glasgow College is held up as a model of how to successfully combine divergent institutions. Spearheaded by its experienced principal, Paul Little, the college – in only its first year – has begun to develop a strong brand, recovering from an early setback with the withdrawal of Stow College from the plans.

“Mergers are no place for a novice,” says Little. He makes clear that the success of the merger relied on the rigour with which the institution approached what he terms “cultural due diligence”, as well as practical concerns around finance, legalities and physical plant. “It’s people that make mergers work, not grand plans hatched in board rooms,” he adds.

“Mergers are a process, they’re not a destination. We’ve been through a number of phases; we’ve gone from the planning phase, to the implementation phase, to the integration phase – which is probably where we are now – and what we look forward to is what I call the innovation phase. That’s where we can leverage out even more benefit than we have done now.”

Consultation and communication were at the centre of Little’s push for cultural due diligence, with one in ten staff taking part in 18 working groups and up to 35 specific consultations dealing with different areas of the process. “We had a cultural due diligence because we’re mindful of the impact of culture on the success of the merger,” he says.

Staff continued to receive communication and progress updates every week via email, newsletters and podcasts, half of which come directly from the principal’s office. Over 130 questions, crowd sourced from staff by volunteers, were answered on the college intranet, within ten days of being posed.

“We sought professional support from a psychologist to help the wellbeing of staff. We released trade union staff so that they could better represent their members as we were planning the merger.

“In addition, we took the views of the students and we strengthened the student voice. We now have a full-time paid student president and part-time student representatives, and they have a student executive – all to make sure that we could hear the student voice in our planning process.

“The most complex thing for us was to make sure we maintained business as usual for our students. We didn’t want the students to have their learning disrupted,” says Little, who adds that staff were given additional time to commit to merger-planning activities.

If the effort expended in preparing for the birth of the City of Glasgow College seems extreme, its midwife is clear why this was necessary. “We’re mindful of the fact that we’re responsible for one in ten of all college learners in Scotland; mindful of the fact that 70 per cent of our students come from minority communities. We’re mindful of the fact that two out of five students of over 32,000 students [come from the] most deprived postcodes in and around Glasgow. We’ve 135 different nationalities represented in our students.

“The college now receives 35,000 applications for 8,500 full-time programmes. This was the first ever three-way merger of colleges in Scotland. And it was three successful colleges, three specialist colleges. Imagine taking three successful IT infrastructures across 11 buildings, across six sites, across the city, and then merging them into, say, a common email system. Imagine merging three separate finance systems, three separate HR systems, three separate quality systems, three separate estate systems. The scale and scope is substantial.”

The college has achieved operational savings of almost £5.5m in its first year, and aims for savings of £3m per year going forward. This has been achieved despite instituting a three year no-compulsory-redundancy pledge, with 100 staff taking voluntary severance as part of the merger.

Little says the success at City of Glasgow College undermines the negativity that is often associated with such processes – and can be seen around the current Scottish Government proposals “I often see pieces written about mergers – some of that is scaremongering.

“I think to a certain extent there’s a lot of selfserving negativity written about mergers. People who have never experienced a merger become experts in it.” Little points to the creation of Scotland’s first-ever mergers and partnerships research centre at the college as a way of providing evidence to combat such ill-feeling.

While openly critical of the Government’s cuts to college budgets, Little says that the challenging fiscal environment shouldn’t be conflated with the push for mergers. “There’s a blurring between the reform agenda and the cuts agenda; I think it’s unfortunate. I think it can distract staff, it can distract managers and it can distract boards. This college is very supportive of the reform agenda. We embrace the reform agenda. We’ve demonstrated that the reform agenda can work.”

1 Comment

  1. Dribbler

    Why is the assertion that the City of Glasgow College is a model of success not challenged? It is an unmitigated disaster. An unpleasant culture permeates the college. Staff are afraid to point out mistakes to senior managers. The government has provided many millions of pounds to implement the merger in the hope that this will be recouped in reduced staffing costs. Unfortunately, the reduced staffing has resulted in chaos. The budget is out of control with a massive loss of income accompanied by spiralling and wasteful expenditure. Everything revolves around the 'New Brand' but they just can't get it right. Some walls have changed colour five times in as many weeks in an attempt to roll out the 'corporate colours'. Major companies have lodged serious complaints and are contemplating breaking off their association with the college. This would result in hundreds of students being sent elsewhere, probably to England. It would be prudent for Mike Russell to take a much closer look before forcing this template on Edinburgh and Dundee.

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