To merge or not to merge? This is the question… And this question is not only put forward by the governments in European higher education (as these are HE systems strongly steered by the states), but increasingly by university managers. The issues of strategic positioning in the face of global competition have caused the "big" players to scratch their heads looking for innovative solutions when it comes to structural and other types of alliances, and in extreme cases- mergers of HE institutions. Although the governments apply the traditional inducements—incentive funding in the interest of efficiency and cost-reduction— a few also claim quality to be an important motivation for merging HE institutions. This type of reasoning has imposed or encouraged voluntary mergers of universities of applied sciences with traditional research universities, or the mergers of public research institutes with universities, or even mergers between established research universities.
European higher education is really diverse- so are the HE governance traditions. The new public management rhetoric and practice of European governments bolstered by a strong belief in markets has led to a large number of mergers in the UK- the early adopter of pro-market policies in higher education. A different picture can be observed in Germany, where the majority of mergers took place as a result of the unification of Germany often driven by needs for greater efficiency. However, although very different systems in terms of market logic, in both systems mergers of research universities have been motivated by global competition and positioning, as in the cases of University of Manchester and Karslruhe Institute of Technology. The German excellence initiative presented opportunities for German universities to acquire substantial funding, a "large carrot" for striving for excellence and creating an "MIT" like institutions as rightly noted by Pruisken (2012).
Interestingly, smaller countries have followed suit with the mergers of specialized HE institutions with more comprehensive institutions, especially in Denmark or Finland. Most often these mergers have been supported and endorsed by the government politically and financially. Aalto University [Finland] has become a showcase for combining complementary strengths with strong private financial backing. Although these strategic mergers are hailed as big successes, the outcomes are difficult to measure. Here are two different snapshots of post-merger institutions.
While interviewing staff at post-merger UK institution 6 years after the merger, I heard strong discontent from those who ‘took over’ as well as from those we were ‘taken over’ and were fighting to retain their identity. Moreover, deep concern was expressed as some departments were forced to close and significant numbers of administrative staff lost their jobs in the process of ’streamlining’. This is an excellent example of how "success" is judged in a ‘hostile takeover’.
Another example is from a Lithuanian case where three public research institutions were merged to create a bigger research center in the wave of mergers and incorporations of state research institutes in 2010. In fact, an umbrella organization with a new top administration was created, while in the three ‘former’ independent institutes business continued as usual, keeping the same managers and academics in place, and without any change in research programs. Knowing the strength of symbolic compliance as an academic behavior, I was not surprised.
I have persistent doubts—are European universities and governments intending to compete with US institutions, or are they just playing a game within their own national environments to position themselves more favorably vis-à-vis their largely national stakeholders and competitors by ‘playing the game’ of global rankings. Is it better to be a small fish in a big lake or a big fish in a small pond? I think this is a question we should be asking instead of looking at mergers in isolation. Perhaps the answer lies with the university visionaries or consultants, and not with policy makers or academics themselves.