Mergers in Higher Education – some key take aways! By Rómulo Pinheiro, Lars Geschwind & Timo Aarrevaara

 

(clockwise) Lars Geschwind (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), Rómulo Pinheiro (University of Agder,Norway) and Timo Aarrevaara (University of Lapland, Finland)
(clockwise) Lars Geschwind (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), Rómulo Pinheiro (University of Agder,Norway) and Timo Aarrevaara (University of Lapland, Finland)

Mergers are attractive for political and administrative decision makers because they are presumed to boost efficiency and effectiveness, broaden student access, increase government control over higher education systems and result into larger organizations. Whereas the structural approach emphasizes the benefits of globalisation, marketisation, rankings and economics of scale, the cultural approach focuses on benefits from stronger identity, engagement and the location of the institution. External pressures for mergers have

increased in recent years, mainly due to national policies built on stronger disciplinary profiles and economics of scale. Another driver causing pressures for mergers is the expected success in international league tables – the larger higher education institutions seems to be more successful than smaller ones in rankings.

Two recent studies on mergers involving higher education institutions, one of which was part of a special issue “Mergers in Higher Education” published in the European Journal of Higher Education, point to a number of key lessons. Managers need to ensure that the institutions in question are complementary, not only when it comes to their academic profiles but also as regards disciplinary cultures. Strong institutions are characterized by increasing internal diversity, but this also poses a challenge for managers in a context where increasing competition is forcing institutions to concentrate on a selected number of study offerings and research areas – profiling. The ideal scenario is one where those entities planning a merger have had a period of prior collaboration to learn about one another. Yet, there is also some evidence suggesting that this is not always a necessary condition for a successful merger outcome. Likewise, despite the fact that there is solid indications that voluntary processes are, on the whole, easier to manage, there is also some evidence suggesting that more top-down (forced) and/or less amicable (i.e. hostile) processes are not necessarily doom to fail. Context matters, and this means that managers need to take into consideration the expectations and demands by external stakeholder groups as well; ranging from government agencies, regional actors like industry or local government. In certain circumstances, the support from students may also provide the required legitimacy and ensure a smoother transition. Culturally, almost with no exceptions some degree of internal resistance towards the merger will arise. That said, this does not necessarily imply that, in the mid-run, and given a proper communication process and active stakeholder involvement, a situation of ‘business as usual’ does not come to the fore. At the individual level, it seems that some actors accept the external pressures to start the process, even though the goal of the merger is not supported at all. This is part of a new phenomenon, as the merger process as such is a goal in and of itself for enabling change or innovation to happen. The social and economic costs are high in cases where the merger processes will not have the opportunity to be implemented at all. In such circumstances the long-term loses are potentially rather high; regarding strategies, branding, culture and identity, and not least human resources.

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