To merge or not to merge?

Author: Prof. Liudvika Leisyte


To merge or not to merge? This is the question… And this question is not only put forward by the governments in European higher education (as these are the HE systems which are strongly steered by the states), but increasingly by the university managers. The issue of strategic positioning in the face of global competition has brought forward the ‘big’ players to scratch their heads, looking for innovative solutions when it comes to structural and other types of alliances, and in extreme cases– mergers of HE institutions. Although the governments continue the traditional mantra of mergers via incentive funding in the name of efficiency and cost-reduction, there are a few also claiming quality to be an important reason for merging HE institutions. This type of reasoning has led to imposed or voluntary merger of universities of applied sciences or their incorporation into traditional research universities, or the mergers of public research institutes or their incorporation into universities, or lastly even mergers between established research universities.

European higher education is very diverse – so are the HE governance traditions. The overly studied new public management rhetoric, and practice of European governments with a strong belief in markets has led to a large number of mergers in the UK – the early adopter of pro-market policies in higher education. This differing picture can be observed in Germany, where the majority of mergers took place due to the reunification of Germany in 1990 as well as reasons of efficiency. However, although they are very different systems in terms of adoption of market logic, in both mergers of research universities can be found – in the name of global competition and positioning, such as in the cases of University of Manchester and Karslruhe Institute of Technology. The German excellence initiative acted as an opportunity for German universities to acquire substantial funds, a ‘large carrot’ for striving for top excellence and creating ‘MIT’ like institutions as rightly noted by Pruisken (2012).

Interestingly, smaller countries have followed suit with mergers of specialised HE institutions with more comprehensive institutions– as seen in Denmark or Finland. Most often these mergers have been supported and endorsed by the government both politically and financially. Alto University for example has become the showcase for adding complementary strengths and strong private financial backing. Although these strategic mergers are hailed as a big success, the real processes of mergers and outcomes are difficult to measure. Here are two different snapshots of post-merger institutions.

While interviewing staff at post-merger UK institution six years after the merger, I could hear strong discontent from those who ‘took over’ and those we were being ‘taken over’ and who fought to retain their identity. Moreover, deep concern was expressed as some departments had to close leading to significant numbers of administrative staff losing their jobs; the university went forward with ’streamlining’ itself with leaner structures and a stronger profile. This case is an excellent example of the success of a ‘hostile takeover’.

Another example is from a Lithuanian public research institution, which was merged with other two public research institutions to create a bigger research center – in the huge wave of mergers and incorporations of state research institutes in Lithuania in 2010. In fact in this case an umbrella organisation with a new top administration was created, while in the three ‘former’ independent institutes – the business continued as usual – keeping the same managers and academics in place, with no change in research programmes or fields. Knowing the strength of symbolic compliance in academic behaviour (Leisyte 2007), I was not surprised to see this.

My puzzle still remains – are the universities and governments going for the global competition with the US institutions? Or are they just playing the game within their own national environments and positioning themselves better vis-à-vis their largely national stakeholders and competitors, but legitimising this by ‘playing the game’ of global rankings. Is it better to be a small fish in a big lake – or a big fish in a small pond? I think this is a question we should be asking instead of the one on mergers. Seemingly the answer lies today with the university visionaries and consultants, and not with policy makers or academics themselves.


Leisyte, L. (2007). University Governance and Academic Research. Enschede: CHEPS, University of Twente.

Pruisken, I. (2012) Higher Education Mergers in Germany and UK – Traces of institutional change. Paper presented at the 28th EGOS Colloquium “Design!?”, July 5–7, 2012, Aalto University & Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland.

About Liudvika Leisyte

Photo_Liudvika_LeisyteLiudvika Leisyte is Professor of Higher Education at the Centre for Higher Education TU Dortmund, the Chair of Female Faculty Network Twente Board and the Board member of the journals European Journal of Higher Education and Higher Education Policy.  Her areas of research interest include academic work, higher education and research governance and management as well as academic entrepreneurship. Prof. Leisyte has published two monographs, a number of chapters in edited books and peer-reviewed articles in Higher Education, Higher Education Policy, Public Administration, Public Management, Science and Public Policy. She can be found on Twitter @liudvikaleisyte.

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