Wales set for university mergers

Just another quick post to pass on the news just out that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced that the number of universities in Wales must reduce by a half over the next two years.

I’ve argued already on this blog that there are too many small separate higher education institutions in Wales and that’s a view which is probably held by many across the sector. Mergers and/or closures have seemed to me to be inevitable for some time given the general climate of austerity and the consequent chill winds blowing through the groves of academe. According to HEFCW, the plan is that by 2013 no “region” of Wales will have any more than two universities although I’m not sure what counts as a region.

Until recently there were four different “universities” with campuses in Cardiff: Cardiff University (where I work); the University of Glamorgan (which has a presence in Cardiff, but which has its main campus in Pontypridd); the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD); and the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC).

In fact RWCMD was absorbed by the University of Glamorgan a short time ago, but still uses its old name as part of the merged institution.
Apparently one more merger will be necessary to satisfy HEFCW’s requirement, which I guess will involve UWIC also being absorbed by the University of Glamorgan. If that does happen, I hope HEFCW will keep a close eye on matters of governance. The UoG doesn’t seem to me to have a very strong track-record with respect to resafeguarding standards of academic practice.

Depending on how “region” is interpreted, there might even be pressure to include the University of Wales, Newport in an even bigger new South East Wales institution presumably headed by the University of Glamorgan.

Elsewhere in Wales the merger process is already underway. Last week, Swansea Metropolitan and the University of Wales Trinity St David announced plans to create a united institution. Going back one stage, the University of Wales Trinity St David was itself formed through the merger earlier this year of Wales’ oldest education institutions, Trinity University College, Carmarthen and the University of Wales Lampeter. Although these have merged it appears they will carry on using their existing names, which may cause some confusion but we’ll have to see how it goes.

It’s important to note that universities are officially independent bodies, so HEFCW (through which public funding is channeled to them) can’t really just tell them to merge. However, many of the smaller institutions are so dependent on state funding that they basically have to do what HEFCW tells them or face financial oblivion. Of course it will require Vice-chancellors to agree, and since presumably half of them will cease to be VCs, there will be some reluctance. Turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas. However, HEFCW has promised that “core funding will be deployed in ways which lend force to the achievement of that target”. In other words, they’ll be calling on the odd VC to make them an offer they can’t refuse…


5 Responses to “Wales set for university mergers”

  1. The old University of Wales setup made more sense.

    Bangor, Aberystwyth, Lampeter, Swansea and Cardiff colleges, with the additional College of Medicine. Since then we’ve had technical colleges becoming ‘universities’.

  2. Yes, Wales does have too many universities for its size. And England does too, for that matter.

    The mergers of the teaching-led institutions to form larger, regional universities with sufficient size to be efficient is something to be welcomed strongly. It could eliminate the duplication of expensive senior management for a start.

    My central concern is that the merged institutions could have campuses separately by tens of kilometres. My preference would therefore be to have seen more importance given to geography in determining which universities should merge. For example, UWIC could merged with Cardiff University, and Swansea Metropolitan University with Swansea University.

    It should be stated that the considerable number of small, inefficient universities that exist in Wales at present is the direct consequence of the policies of the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales over the past twenty years. HEFCW encouraged the conversion of higher education and further education colleges into universities, as well as the weakening of the federal University of Wales. It should have encouraged mergers years ago as part of the process of granting university status to aspirant colleges.

    A central remaining issue is that of quality assurance. This is not merely an approval of process, but the need also for an approval of educational standards. It is about the syllabus of each course and the rigour of the assessment process. Getting this right would enhance the prestige associated with degrees from universities in Wales, which could enhance the interest of employers to recruit graduates from them, and in turn could attract prospective undergraduates.

    Of course, the issue that has not been discussed publicly much in recent years is the University of Wales. Until the last several years, the University of Wales did some excellent work in assuring the standard of degrees across its institutions. The weakening of its role and its attempts to find new roles has been a great loss. The University of Wales could and should have a revitalised position in approving academic standards, and across all universities in Wales (and none outside of Wales). It needs a new role, and that is one it should do. HEFCW should force that through as well.

  3. If UWIC merges with Glamorgan, we can expect a sudden and dramatic brain drain of the high quality academics that have taken UWIC sailing up the league tables in recent years. Some parts of UWIC such as the Sports School and Art School are of National (UK) standing, they would fit better with Cardiff than with the pile-em-in sell ’em a bargain degree attitude of Glamorgan.

  4. The whole of UK has too many so called universities, these were institutes and polys which were producing good HNDs and HNCs in areas Britain needs
    people with skills. Also, a few senior academics in these universities have dodgy reputation. For example, U of Glamorgan Welcomed with open arms the disgraced Dean from U of Westminster, there is not much guessing work here.

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