Monday, April 2, 2012


Last week, I spent some time in Finland working on number of joint projects that have been developed between Turku University, where I have a visiting professorship, and the Global Academy.

During my week there, I had the opportunity to visit Helsinki and the new academic institution known as Aalto University. It was a fortuitous visit, given that Aalto University was created out of a merger, two years ago, between three specialist academic institutions, namely the University of Art and Design Helsinki (1,900 students), the Helsinki University of Technology (14,000 students) and the Helsinki School of Economics (3,200 students).

As such, it seems a relevant case study to examine the impact of university mergers that, as most of you are aware, are seen as the panacea to some of the challenges facing Welsh Higher Education. Talking to various individuals, it became clear that the first issue that was important in terms of the Aalto merger was that it had a specific vision that was linked into a national policy towards innovation and competitiveness.

Its aim, once formed, was to create an institution that would be a world-class rival to Helsinki University, which is regularly ranked amongst the top 100 universities in the world. Unfortunately, there has been a total failure to elaborate a similar national ambition within Wales for its university mergers. Instead, the emphasis on regional economies and efficiencies of scale rather than any significant educational or economic reward.

And even though the academic status of those Welsh institutions currently involved in merger discussions is somewhat different to the Aalto triumvirate, there has been little information on how educational quality could be improved as a result of organisational change, even though this should be a major part of any higher education merger. There have been arguments made, as in the case of Finnish Universities, that the diversity of programme offerings would be increased as a result of the merger. However, there is also the danger of rationalisation, rather than specialisation, especially in areas such as business studies where high levels of duplication are likely.

Another key factor in the apparent success of Aalto University is undoubtedly the funding provided by the Finnish Government to ensure that a successful new institution hits the ground running, receiving a one-off cash injection of half a billion euros on the condition that it raises another 200 million euros from the private sector.

In Wales, there seems to be no money available to support the development of further collaboration or merger between institutions, with the Welsh Government suggesting that universities have to show their worth to the public purse from an ever decreasing funding settlement. Another key ingredient in ensuring that Aalto University succeeded from its first day of operations was that the new management was able to identify and satisfy the skills needs of the key stakeholders in their region and ensure broad external support.

Again, this has not been the case in Wales, with an increasing number of organisations supporting the independence of certain institutions over any proposed merger. Indeed, the ability to come up with a compelling story so that stakeholders would buy into the concept of a merged institution has been one of the real successes of Aalto University, enabling key reforms to take place over a short period of time.

This has enabled the institution to deal directly with issues that would undoubtedly be faced by Welsh institutions. These include increased workload for staff as the merger develops, higher levels of bureaucracy, fears of redundancy, lost of academic identity for the smaller partners; disruption of teaching styles as mass lecturing takes the place of student-oriented learning and geographical distances between campuses. Of course, Aalto was designed in order that a multi-disciplinary innovation culture could be developed across all three institutions where science, arts and business could merge to create a truly innovative world-class university.

Has anyone yet made a similar case be made for any merger within the Welsh university sector? If not, then why go ahead with an expensive and time consuming exercise that could instead be enhanced through further collaboration and increased sharing of services. In fact, have those in favour of greater rationalisation created an overwhelming argument for actual organisational merger or it is largely symbolic, given the distances between various campuses?

These are serious questions that need addressing by those calling for the further merger of higher education institutions in Wales. Certainly, if they wished to strengthen their case, it would be not bad thing if they were to visit Finland to examine the challenges faced by universities not only in planning a merger but in dealing with its consequences afterwards.

Western Mail column, March 31st 2012.