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“And they lived happily ever after.” No one should expect that it could be an appropriate start for a story about university mergers in Russia. On the contrary, as Jamil Salmi wrote recently, many merged universities  experience severe problems establishing a new identity and academic culture as well as challenges building new and efficient administrative structures for the core activities of the newly formed institutions.

If one considers the reasons why these mergers took place and the conditions under which this happened, it is quite easy to see why there are problems. Mergers were not voluntary decisions of universities but rather decisions of the State interested in the creation of strong federal universities in the several regions. Initially these new and gigantic universities were given extra resources for development, and these financial infusions made structural problems seem less acute at the beginning. However, these institutions had rather different cultures with few incentives to cement academic quality or mechanisms to create new governance structures to confront the new challenges. “Feudal walls” between a particular institution and the rest of academic world cemented with the “grout” of inbreeding are quite difficult to break down. In cases where new rectors were appointed “from outside” (decisions made and enforced at the federal level) quite often failed to create effective reorganization plans or to implement them due to the lack of internal support. In cases of “hiring from within” (when one of the rectors of the merging universities was chosen as a rector) the results generally were even worse since the other part of the institution hastily aligned with the leaders of a new “rival” constituency.

More mergers will come soon. We should not expect them to be less problematic. Indeed, they will be part of the attempt by the Ministry of Education and Science to improve the overall efficiency of the system by dissipating low quality institutions. One relatively smooth way to do that is to merge weak institutions with relatively strong ones. The merged institutions, ideally, should keep the best part of faculty and those parts of education programs that meet appropriate academic standard while less able faculty will be obliged to leave and programs terminated. Mergers should (or at least may try to) prevent student protests by facilitating their studies in a more stable environment (hardly possible if a weak institution is about to be deprived licensing).

So, by definition mergers will be the union of two completely different institutions – one with relatively strong academic culture, higher academic standards and more selective admission, and another with weak students (and hence lower academic requirements), less research-oriented etc. While it is sometimes assumed that a strong culture will cure weak one, it will never happen without costs or influences on culture and efficiency that go in both directions. As a result, a strong university might receive extra money and extra facilities but it also gets a new source of severe headache.

Should these mergers be forced if risks are clearly evident from the beginning? The answer has to be “probably” in the broader context of  how quality at higher education institutions in Russia might be improved given the severe lack of financial and human resources.

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