Mergers, and related reconfigurations, are not something to be taken lightly in higher education.
The tensions between the autonomous nature of higher education institutions and the public nature of the services they provide has made designing a sector-led response to the Covid-19 pandemic difficult. In England especially, it is possible to argue that there is no such thing as a “higher education sector” as a discrete entity – providers enter and leave all the time, and higher education funding flows to everything from FE colleges to alternative providers.
In the inevitable and avoidable sector crisis that is planned for the later months of this year, the UK government has promised (as a last resort)
to develop a restructuring regime, through which we will review providers’ circumstances and assess the need for restructuring. Where action is required, this will come with attached conditions.
It’s hard to imagine a government demanding a merger and overriding institutional autonomy to make lightly sketched efficiency savings. But all of this has happened before, in Wales – with nearly every part of the devolved sector feeling a part of the pain. To illustrate the difficulties that mergers present I want to tell the complex and painful tale that follows an entirely reasonable government ambition to strengthen the metropolitan offer in south east Wales.
Bringing two or more educational providers together is slow, complex, and painful – especially when it is seen to be happening at the behest of government. Later phases of the English FE area review programme led to many colleges with weak finances being supported with additional government funds as independent concerns, such were the difficulties faced in bringing colleges together in mergers or (more frequently) takeovers. There’s never been any real evidence that such forced mergers are beneficial.
But – still – it couldn’t happen in higher education? Could it?
In 1999 the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales was asked by the Welsh Government to recommend proposals for the rationalisation of the university sector, as an outcome of the recent spending review. There were concerns about the number of small providers in the system (no provider in Wales had more than 15,000 FTE students), and clear scope was seen to generate efficiencies and stability – alongside “energy and synergy” with reconfiguration and collaboration.
Unlike in England, mergers were not exactly unheard of in Wales – HEFCW noted the late 80s merger that generated Cardiff University as a recent example, and of course, much of Welsh HE was federated at the time. But recommending five or six general providers rather than the eleven that existed at the time was an ambitious and unprecedented step to take.
“Reaching Higher” The Welsh Government’s ten-year strategy for the higher education sector in Wales was released in 2002. It offered, initially, an additional £5m a year to support the reconfiguration agenda alongside a wider “something for something” (“practical, costed, and quantified results”) approach to future allocation – and set out again the savings implicit within the merger and collaboration agenda. To be clear – mergers were just one model, the strategy made great play with notions of “administrative, functional, and subject-based collaboration”. July 2002 marked the start of the 10 year HEFCW “reconfiguration and collaboration” fund, with providers bidding for funds through the development of fully costed business plans.
Not as easy as it looks
Details of some of the original submissions are still there on the HEFCW website. They cover everything from strategic partnerships between FE and HE, through subject-based research and teaching collaborations, through to full mergers. The scheme’s first big success saw the University of Wales College of Medicine merge with the University of Cardiff – at a cost to the public of a cool £14.3m. Similarly, the University of Glamorgan (now the University of South Wales) entered into a “strategic partnership” with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which resulted eventually in Wales’ only conservatoire becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Glamorgan.
Glamorgan also had an involvement with one of the more notable failures of the scheme, a putative merger with the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. An independent review of the process identified a number of stumbling blocks that led to the collapse of the idea – concerns over the leadership of the “New U”, membership of the University of Wales federation (UWIC always had been a member, Glamorgan had always stayed outside), and the need for a “merger of equals”.
Both institutions still exist (as Cardiff Metropolitan University and the University of South Wales), and the criticisms made in the independent review cannot fairly be levelled at them sixteen years on. But the review still represents possibly the most unflinching and honest account of a university merger process in the UK – as such, it should be read by anyone contemplating a similar process.
Blood on the carpet?
Despite an avowedly “strong” case for merger, the review found that the work underlying the options appraisal was skimpy – presented as a set of bullet points in an appendix. This points to a wider truth – although work was exemplary at a process level (full disclosure: I was tangentially involved in aspects of this) the problems manifested at a strategic level. Bluntly put, an early informal meeting saw reported agreement on a number of topics that both parties were surprised to see back on the table at a later date. These included the aforementioned leadership issue and UoW membership.
In both cases, a compromise had been found involving an interim period, with the possibility of further changes after the initial merger. However, this was reported differently and described differently in each institution. At a fundamental level, it was never clear that both providers were completely committed to the merger – those instances where a success was made of the process saw a much deeper and wider buy-in.
Senior leaders, in my experience, are pragmatic people. They will put ideology aside if a case is there that would strengthen their institution. But in this instance, it was never clear the case was there. Former HEFCW Chief Executive Phil Gummett makes a similar point in his chapter in Mergers and Alliances in Higher Education – a volume currently available under an open license from the publisher.
The key role of university leaders, especially the vice-chancellor and the chair of governors, became clear during this phase… Even when discussions are going well, trust between institutional leaders is still critical: in sensitive discussions about who will take what role later; in having confidence that the other party will effectively manage doubters within their institution; and on how to present the evolving discussions publicly. Trust between university and funding body leaders is also critical, particularly at moments when commitments may be needed on timescales that cannot wait for normal governance processes.
What this all resulted in was a loss of trust – between the two universities, between each university and the Welsh government, and between staff and university management. These problems would still be visible many years later.
Higher and deeper
Outside of specialist providers merging into multi-subject universities, there were three major areas of activity during the funded life of the programme. We’ve covered and will return to post-92 provision in south east Wales – but there was also action afoot in north Wales, and south-west Wales.
The distances involved between providers in the north put any merger ideas, such as the obvious synergies between Aberystwyth and Bangor, outside of the realms of the logistically possible. A later proposal for a federated north Wales offer including the North East Wales Institute (later Glyndwr University) met with short shrift in Wrexham – and a later review chaired by Adrian Webb saw the idea as unviable. However, these discussions – facilitated by HEFCW funding – resulted in research and teaching collaborative arrangements.
Meanwhile, in the south-west the current University of Wales Trinity St David comprises the former Trinity University College, University of Wales Lampeter, Swansea Metropolitan University, and the University of Wales, along with three regional FE colleges (Coleg Ceredigion, Coleg Sir Benfro, and Coleg Sir Gar). The majority of these mergers took place within a single four year period between 2009 and 2012 – with only the Trinity/Lampeter element benefiting from funds.
And in south Wales, UWIC had begun merger talks with the University of Wales College Newport in 2004 – but withdrew the following year after it was told that such a merger had to involve the University of Glamorgan, who saw the opportunity as a chance to take over its local competitors.
Clearly the Glamorgan/UWIC story was not yet over – and the next phase (again involving Newport) will have a particular resonance for those who see mergers and reconfigurations as something that could be seen as a prerequisite for any form of financial assistance.
Deeper and down
In 2009, a new Minister for Children, Education, and Lifelong Learning – Leighton Andrews – entered the Welsh cabinet. The 2011 election saw him take on the new role of Minister for Education and Skills. In a widely reported speech at Cardiff University on 25 May 2010 he set a tone that would see a shift from facilitation of university collaboration to – shall we say – very heavy encouragement indeed. The 2011 Labour Manifesto put it thus:
Use the full range of our powers, including legislative powers, to ensure that by 2013 no university in Wales is operating on a turnover that is less than 75 per cent of the UK average.
The key phrase is “including legislative powers”. Andrews went on to refer repeatedly to the use of section 128 of the Education Reform Act 1988, which offered him the option to provide by order for the dissolution of any higher education corporation in Wales. As he told Senedd:
We have the powers under the 1988 Act to dissolve higher education corporations in certain circumstances. I have outlined in the statement how we intend to progress with those discussions in south-east Wales, and I do not intend to add further to that today.
HEFCW was asked to provide advice in confidence to the minister on their ideas for reshaping the sector. This went far further than the vague “five or six” providers mooted ten years previously. This advice gave names, and often punishing pen portraits. In black and white:
University of Glamorgan, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff and University of Wales, Newport to merge, creating a post-92 institution appropriate to the population of SE Wales, provided this can be secured within our Corporate Plan period. We do not yet have a true ‘metropolitan’ university in SE Wales, comparable to those in similarly sized city-regions around the UK.
Matters were coming to a head.
A Newport state of mind
The new tripartite proposal incorporated UWIC (by then Cardiff Metropolitan University – ironically a name initially proposed for the abandoned Glamorgan/UWIC merger), Glamorgan, and the University of Wales College Newport. Cardiff Met was “disappointed” with the reemergence of the proposal, and noted that there had been a “failure to provide a single piece of evidence” for the need for the merger. Questions about rationale were a key thread in every stage of the response.
Since the first abortive merger significant effort had been made by government to bring about a “metropolitan” university for south east Wales – including commissioned reports from no less than three English vice chancellors. The magnificently named 2005 Cooke and Bull Report (Ron Cooke, John Bull) memorably characterised current provision as being in “a spiral of decline”, but was upbeat about the prospects of bringing the three providers together. There was:
an exciting opportunity to build a post-92 Higher Education provision in southeast Wales which can be truly distinctive in many aspects of its work, world-class in selected domains, serving the needs and aspirations of students and the economy.
Leighton Andrews commissioned Steve Smith to re-evaluate the situation in 2012 – his short, readable, if rather lightweight, report summarises the evidence assembled to date. He noted that:
For a decade the institutions of SE Wales have promised to think about merger, but have until 2012 ended up deciding that the time is not quite right.
But one factor had recently shifted. The University of Wales College Newport was involved, it was keen, and it was actively progressing plans with the University of Glamorgan. Two-thirds of the jigsaw was in place, and public pressure – including veiled threats of progressing dissolution – was being put on Cardiff Met. Smith found the Cardiff institution was a “strong institution” at present, “well led” and “financially sound” – but his reading of its future differed sharply. With a new, larger, post-92 competitor on its doorstep, the limited subject portfolio could lead to a slow decline in recruitment and financial stability.
Indeed, Cardiff Met’s argument against the merger drew on the idea of Glamorgan as “predatory”. Whereas that is slightly unfair – many universities are keen to expand and grow – Glamorgan had already begun to expand into Cardiff from their Treforest base, developing the new Atrium campus as a part of an expanded arts offer in competition with Cardiff Met’s historic School of Art and Design. Cardiff Met had initially engaged in merger discussions with Swansea Metropolitan University and Trinity St David – in line with the alternate HEFCW recommendation – but had pulled out fairly quickly from these talks.
Quite how much of a threat the Cardiff Met dissolution consultation was is contested. In Leighton Andrews’ book “Ministering to Education”, his “adapt or die” message to the Welsh sector shines through. He recalls:
Although I was prepared to used the powers under [section 128 of] the Education Reform Act, I did not believe I could do so unless we had the support of another political party.
Whether this means that the dissolution of Cardiff Met would or wouldn’t have come to pass is a question only he could answer – Andrews seems to have been personally keen to force the merger through, but doubted the cross-party nature of political backing for the move. Cardiff Met had asked for an extension to allow discussions to take place and had threatened to report the government to the Welsh Audit Office citing a poor business case for the merger (the Audit Office had taken a more general look at the reconfiguration and collaboration fund in 2009).
In the end, it wasn’t a clinching argument on either side that saw Cardiff Metropolitan remain independent. The Glamorgan/Newport merger was ready to go – and it was generally seen that delaying that initiative to involve Cardiff Met would slow things down. As Leighton Andrews put it:
When I was convinced that Glamorgan’s merger with Newport was unstoppable, I decided to scrap the consultation on the dissolution of Cardiff Met. That meant that Glamorgan and Newport would be free to merge. We could now safely say the reconfiguration agenda had been completed.
At Cardiff Met, much of the credit for the successful campaign against the merger is due to former Chair of Governors and current Chancellor Barbara Wilding, with the support of staff and students at all levels. As she said after the announcement was made:
Not one person said ‘you were wrong – you shouldn’t have done this.’ We got a round of applause because we said ‘we always were a successful university and what we are doing is going to make us even more successful.’ The word that was used constantly to me was ‘solidarity’. Within 24 hours [of the minister’s statement] messages of support were coming through and even when I was in London, people were coming up to me.
Then vice chancellor Antony Chapman reiterated that, on a fundamental level, the proposed super-provider made little sense:
We kept saying that ‘we’re not opposed to it, but we don’t understand why this is better for Wales.’ I couldn’t see how a university of some 45,000 students in this region made sense and was in any way better than how we’re currently configured… Our students simply didn’t swallow the idea that big was better.
Considerable time, effort, and money was put into merging the University of Glamorgan with UWIC/Cardiff Met – to no obvious benefit. Cardiff Metropolitan University continues to offer and diversify its distinctive provision while remaining sustainable – a recent report by the Welsh Governance Centre found it was best placed in Wales to weather the Covid-19 storm. The University of South Wales also scored well by those metrics – and has seen sustained success and expansion in the years since the merger. Although USW’s main Newport campus (just outside the city in Caerleon) closed in 2014, provision in Newport City Centre remains. The two providers enjoy trust and mutual respect as much as between any neighbouring universities.
Would the three providers have survived without the merger? Quite possibly. Would the proposed tripartite merger have seen a bigger impact? Impossible to say. It is very difficult to measure the impact of such reconfiguration – as far as I can tell there has never been an overall evaluation of the HEFCW reconfiguration and collaboration fund, or of the merger that led to the foundation of the University of South Wales.
Cara Aitchison, who took over as Vice-Chancellor from Tony Chapman in 2016, told me:
I wasn’t persuaded by the ‘spiral of decline’ thesis; the university had never returned a deficit in its annual accounts and was generally well regarded, if a little on the small side. The strategic plan we developed in 2016-2017 focused on improvement, diversification and growth to further strengthen the sustainability of the university, and the tough decisions we took two or three years ago as a result of the plan have only strengthened our financial position. Turnover has increased from from less than £80m at the time of Steve Smith’s report in 2012 to £107m in 2018-19. Paradoxically, in spite of the current challenges morale has probably never been higher and Covid-19 seems to have galvanised staff, contributing even further to Cardiff Met’s strong sense of identity and purpose as staff have pulled together.
Mergers take time to realise benefits, and require significant investment to bring about. There is no question of a “rationalisation” being a quick fix to financial or recruitment issues – few providers have the resources to spend on such measures, and the wheels simply move too slow. There is a civic, and human, element to a higher education provider that can make proposals that seem sensible impossible – that same element can inspire a university to do incredible things.
We may well see more mergers in future, but these will not be mandated by government. Successful mergers come about through shared strategic goals and values – and a sense that the sum of institutions is greater than their individual value. But as a quick fix to problems caused by Covid-19, mergers make no sense at all.
To give Cara Aitchison the last word:
My time as vice chancellor at Plymouth Marjon taught me the value that students place on small class sizes and high levels of class contact. Marjon was a rare case of a successful merger born out of necessity; the College of St Mark and the College of St John merged after the first world war claimed too many staff and students for both London institutions to carry on independently. They had been established within just a few years of each other in the 1830s and 40s, and were both Church Foundation Colleges and both were specialist teacher training colleges. Without common values and purposes there seems little likelihood of any successful outcome to merger proposals, particularly when they’re devised by politicians.