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Collaboration talks between Lancaster and the University of Liverpool have sparked fears of a merger, along with claims that dealings between institutions have not been properly transparent.
On 1 July, it was announced to all staff via the Press Office newsletter LUText that Lancaster and Liverpool had set up a Joint Strategic Planning Group to “explore the benefits of closer collaboration.” A week later, the independent online newsletter Subtext published a special edition claiming that collaboration was merely a euphemism for ‘merger’. The Subtext newsletter also expressed the opinion that the University had not told members of Senate and University Council, its governing bodies, until it absolutely had to.
“Clearly, this was something that was well underway before anybody in Senate or even Council had even heard about it,” the newsletter said. “It is almost as though those at Lancaster who have been principally involved in setting this course of action in train […] realised that they were about to be found out, and so engaged in these damage-limitation exercises.”
The Lancaster Guardian also picked up on the story, running a front-page article on 14 July headlined ‘University in ‘merger talks’ with Liverpool’ which expressed fears that a merger would lead to redundancies across both institutions.
The University, however, has firmly denied all claims that the planning group is looking to consider a merger. In an email to staff on 19 July, Lancaster’s Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Wellings said: “The Group’s discussions are focussed on ways in which the two Universities can collaborate in their long term strategic interest and are not based on short term financial considerations. […] Unfortunately, there has been some unhelpful, erroneous speculation in the media that the Group has been set up to discuss a merger between the two institutions. This is not true.”
Lancaster and Liverpool already have several research and teaching collaborations in place in medicine, particle physics and social sciences.
The planning group, which is chaired by Professor Sir Colin Lucas, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, met during July and its initial findings were reported to a meeting of University Council at the start of August. A further statement was issued by the University after this meeting which said: “It was agreed to continue to look at opportunities in the coming months and the Universities will consider a Green Paper in September. This will be discussed by Council and Senate. New and innovative ways to collaborate will be explored especially around international strategy and research.”
All University statements have stressed that any collaboration will only be pursued if it supports Lancaster’s Strategic Plan and adds value to the institution. No further information has been made available, however; no senior members of staff have offered comments and no other members of the planning group have been named.
So far it is thought unlikely that collaboration will have a significant impact on the student experience.
“Due to the fundamental difference in student experience at the two universities there seems little chance of our students being directly affected,” said LUSU President George Gardiner. “However, we have to ensure that any further discussions do not lead to a negative impact on Lancaster University students.”
University statements also say that collaboration aims to allow Lancaster to take full opportunity of a Government White Paper on Research and Innovation which is expected to be published in autumn 2011. According to Subtext, the White Paper “will examine the question of research funding, among other things, and it is widely thought that it will recommend its concentration in a small top tier of HE institutions.”
The issue of dealing with severe budget cuts is one currently facing all UK universities. In September 2010, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, told the Universities UK Annual Conference that universities should be looking to share back-office services, such as IT, finance and human resources, between institutions to cut costs. It has recently been announced that the University of Warwick, along with five other currently unnamed institutions, are planning to share some administrative and IT services to improve efficiency.