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Ricardo Azziz has held numerous leadership positions in higher education and led the merger that resulted in Georgia Regents University, now Augusta University. He is director of the Strategic Partnerships in Higher Education Consulting Group.
This is the first article in a regular Merger Watch opinion series he writes on corporate restructuring in higher education.
Two of the most prestigious universities in Japan sign a pact of merger. hundreds of students are protesting the decision to merge their university with two others in the Armenian capital Yerevan. In Scotland, students and the wider community are being asked to have their say a planned merger of three universities to create an “anchor institution” within the University of the Highlands and Islands.
What can we learn from this news? First, that mergers in higher education are a global phenomenon. Secondly, that mergers are being sought in many countries in order to improve global competitiveness. Third, that mergers are bound to provoke resistance.
The global phenomenon of mergers in higher education has in many ways anticipated the expected consolidation of US colleges. In recent decades, large merger initiatives have been reported from Northern Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, Romania, Greece, Australia, South Africa, Russia, Ukraine and China.
Almost alone in Europe 100 mergers or alliances occurred between 2000 and 2015. In South Africa, mergers have focused on reducing the number of universities and technical universities (“technicons”) to improve post-apartheid access and equity, enhance economies of scale, and enhance institutional viability and differentiation.
Between 1960 and 1991, Australia undertook three waves of fusion activity aimed at improvements programmatic and financial coordination. Widespread in China Merger activities began in the 1990swith over 400 mergers in which almost 1,000 public universities were involved until 2005.
While there may be significant differences in higher education policies, structures and portfolios across countries, there are lessons to be learned from the experience of international groupings.
First, the international higher education community has recognized a factor that often seems to elude US college governing boards and government mandates—that, generally speaking, bigger is better. Better in terms of opportunities and access that can be offered to students and teachers, better in terms of efficiency and sustainability, and better in terms of local and international competitiveness. Although there are small schools that are very successful, most smaller institutions are more financially vulnerable and not more sustainable than their larger counterparts and competitors. Size matters.
Second, mergers at the international level aim to create comprehensive, broad-based universities that are better able to offer transdisciplinary education and research programs and have greater potential for increased international prestige. Mergers strengthen competitiveness.
Third, mergers are often difficult and complex, and not without vocal opposition. Ultimately, this resistance must be met by the leaders responsible for the school’s corporate structure – its board of directors. Internationally, higher education mergers are often advocated and driven by local and national leaders. In the US, the most successful and comprehensive merger initiative to date occurred within the University System of Georgia, following similar mergers within the Technical College System of Georgia. Their successful completion was promoted by the provincial governors and the governing bodies of the universities and technical colleges. Merger success cannot happen (or even be contemplated) without the full and unwavering commitment of institutional boards and executives.
As economic stresses continue to mount, student demographics and government funding priorities shift, and the need for local and global competitiveness increases, the pressure to consolidate institutions in an overcapacity industry will continue—both in the United States and around the world. We would do well to listen and learn from our international colleagues who understand that size and competitiveness matter – and that bigger is better in general.
Furthermore, we should recognize that successful consolidation cannot happen without the full and unwavering commitment and support of governing bodies and, in the public sector, senior government officials.