A study of recent university mergers in Russia confirms some of the findings presented in my 2009 book “The Challenge of Establishing World-Class Universities” about the difficulties of constructing top institutions following the merger approach. Igor Chirikov, senior researcher at the Moscow School of Economics, reports that the various programs of excellence launched by the Russian government since 2005, which “encouraged” many universities to merge, have achieved mixed results.
For the past 7 years, the Russian government has actively sought ways of enhancing the performance and contribution of its leading universities. It initiated the Federal University program in 2005, followed by the Innovative University program in 2006, and the National Research University program in 2009. In many cases, setting up the new federal universities involved mergers.
The study on “identity formation” conducted by the Higher School of Economics through in-depth interviews and surveys at four of the new federal universities reveals serious post-merger dysfunctions linked to tensions between the formal regional nature of these universities before the merger and the expectations of a global focus in their new configuration.
In my book, I stressed the challenge of blending in a harmonious manner the institutional cultures of the two or more universities involved in any merger. The Higher School of Economics Study finds that, in the Russian case, the more significant difficulties have not appeared in the initial phase but rather in the post-merger period. These difficulties reflect resistance from academics concerned about losing their disciplinary identity and having to compete in an unfamiliar academic environment, fear of students not familiar with the new university brand, ambivalent messages from the State on what becoming “world-class” entails, insufficient institutional autonomy to operate as an entrepreneurial university, and a more complex administrative structure to manage the reconfigured university. As Tatiana Jean, a renowned IFRI researcher with expertise on Russian universities suggests, “in order to obtain full ownership from all stakeholders, the State and the concerned university leaders need to offer clear and consistent messages to explain the global stakes of these mergers and their concrete implications.”