Cannot remember the context, but this old posting was unpublished so I though this was worth putting up:
I have lived through one university merger – The West London Institute of Education in Osterley/Isleworth, and Brunel University (London, UK).
I taught as a young lecturer at the West London Institute of Higher Education, a small higher education institution in West London, starting in 1993. A report of my experiences is here. In the early 1990s, a rumour of a possible merger between Kingston University and WLIHE never eventuated. I was actually in the lunch queue at Borough Road campus, WLIHE standing behind the Brunel and WLIHE management when I heard them discussing a merger. This was in 1994 (one of the people was Michael Sterling, the VC of Brunel at the time).
At WLIHE we were essentially a teaching-focussed college and part of the London Borough of Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport. Our core business was training teachers, and we taught modular joint degrees and some professional diplomas, but there were some masters and a very few PhD graduates. Some information here. WLIHE had some pretty good professors and research-active people, although not many. There were only a handful of people with British research council and other prestigious research grants. Most research was ranked 1 or 2 in the government assessment, the RAE, in the early 90s (see here, where 1 is low, 5 is excellent). About 70 academics were submitted for assessment, the most being in Allied Health and also Geography, which was my Department. Ar the time Brunel University in Uxbridge fared much better as an institution with innovative 4 year ‘sandwich’ degrees, many more students, and a research profile that was medium to excellent in several disciplines. However WLIHE included some great buildings including a riverside mansion and plenty of Victoriana, while Brunel had its main 1960s concrete campus, pretty unattractive and in far less illustrious Uxbridge, a long walk from the Tube Station.
These factors made it seem for us at WLIHE that a ‘takeover’ by Brunel took place when the ‘merger’ happened, since Brunel was a much more powerful institution. A small institution was merged with a larger one and the small one, WLIHE, later closed althoguh they never said this at the time. See Brunel’s website, which used to mention the Institute in detail but has subsequently edited this down to scarcely a mention – and the links to the archives don’t work ! (http://www.brunel.ac.uk/about/history). Brunel wanted the student numbers in some of the undergrad options that WLIHE offered, and it fancied taking on a few of the research-active staff, which included me because I held an ESRC grant. Most WLIHE staff were in favour of the merger too, since we would become a ‘proper’ university (during my time on the Borough Road campus, after hours work was impossible – the doors were locked at 7pm). A few took redundancy or retirement, because they felt they could not perform in the conventional university research/teaching environment. WLIHE became Brunel University College under Prof. Eric Billett for 2 years, then BUC was annulled and then Brunel University became multi-campus.
The transition was relatively smooth. The positive side was the increase in status for the WLIHE staff and students, and increased student numbers for Brunel at a time when this was important for funding. The negatives really came in under the next VC, Stephen Schwartz (2002-2006). He began the process of vacating and then selling off the two WLIHE campuses and ‘consolidating’ at Uxbridge, and by the mid 2000s both WLIHE sites had been sold. He also restructured the university (an earlier restructure had seen some loss of science/engineering departments at Uxbridge about 1996). My former Department, Geography and Earth Sciences, which had been transferred from WLIHE, was then axed despite a strong campaign to save it. Most of the individual staff were actually saved by Schwartz’s successor and redeployed in other units – two or three are still employed there, but a number of lynchpin geographers finally took redundancy in 2015. There are not many former WLIHE staff left on the Uxbridge campus.
There are several general lessons.
- In a higher education sector merger, jobs may be protected through an agreement; but afterwards, in the merged institution, previous promises are unlikely to be maintained for all that long, unless there are ironclad agreements. Universities are, or are like, businesses.
- Similarly, physical building stock; it can be sold after consolidation and thus be lucrative for the new institution (not sure if this was a merger motivation for Brunel, but we had suspicions at the time). The former Maria Gray riverside campus, comprising a mansion (Gordon House, renamed Richmond House)and other buildings, was sold for many millions. There is a gated housing estate there as well and at Borough Road where we were, a large housing development.
- The lesser partner in a merger can effectively disappear after a number of years, existing only on Wikipedia and Facebook, as in WLIHE’s case. Bulmershe College is another example, in Reading – the campus was later abandoned by Reading University, which took it on in 1989.
- Merged institutions need not resemble the amalgamated entities at all; the management may try to create something entirely new.