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In June 2011 a Joint Strategic Planning Group, chaired by former Oxford Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Colin Lucas, was established to assess the potential for further collaboration between Lancaster and Liverpool Universities. The two institutions already have agreements in place in medicine, particle physics and the social sciences.
This group reported to the Vice Chancellors of the two universities over summer, and a Green Paper was published on 19th September entitled “The Case for Collaboration between Lancaster and Liverpool Universities.”
The Green Paper puts its case in the context of wider changes in the higher education sector. “Changing national higher education policy, the very rapid changes to international higher education policy and the scale of overseas investment in research all point to greater levels of inter-institutional collaboration as being a key driver for the future,” it says.
In particular, the increasing globalisation of higher education is a key context. Lancaster has several international partner institutions, in India, Malaysia and Pakistan especially; Liverpool has “strategic partnerships” with universities in Spain, Turkey, the USA and South America.
The paper predicts that by 2015 Lancaster and Liverpool between them will have 9000 international students studying on-shore and a further 25, 000 off-shore.
Greater competition for research funding will be met by “amalgamations as providers follow the well worn strategy to increased competition by reducing it,” the paper suggests.
Consultation is set to close on 4th November, following discussion at the highest governing bodies of both universities. It is unclear what will happen at that point.
The nature of any collaboration is also uncertain as of yet. However, the Green Paper does hint at joint international strategies between the two universities, as well as a joint interface for applying to funding councils and a joint graduate school as possibilities.
On 11th October, Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Bob McKinlay spoke to an emergency meeting of Union Council, the governing body of Lancaster University Students’ Union (LUSU). The minutes of that meeting show that Prof. McKinlay stressed that the paper was forward-looking in nature and was focused upon Lancaster’s global position within 5-10 years.
McKinlay also noted that other universities have been considered as potential partners and also that other universities were collaborating; he suggested that collaboration was necessary in adjustment to increased competition in the sector.
He also acknowledged that a key challenge would be ensuring that individual student experiences were preserved.
This issue was further discussed at Union Council on 13th October, the result of which was LUSU’s recommendation to the University calling for greater detail and risk assessment in the Green Paper, as well as for a more prominent role for incoming Vice Chancellor Professor Mark Smith.
Speaking to SCAN in Week Three, LUSU President George Gardiner said that “this Green Paper which the discussions are based on isn’t good enough, quite simply.”
LUSU’s recommendation states that “it would be beneficial to see other possible solutions to the predicted research funding concentration, both to keep Lancaster University’s options open and to consider the comparative benefits of collaboration.”
It asks that other universities also be considered and also criticises the Green Paper for failing to account for negative implications of collaboration. “Such transparency is of the utmost importance when considering such high level strategy and should be clearly outlined before further steps are taken,” it says.
LUSU have also called into question the criteria upon which Liverpool has been identified as a potential partner. These focus upon global reputation, being research-led, strategic similarities, geographic proximity and financial stability. The Green Paper makes its case based upon the fact that the two universities fulfil these criteria.
Gardiner suggested that there was a feeling that the University have “jumped to one option and kind of ran with it.”
“There’s not yet the evidence to suggest that Liverpool are the best option either,” he said.
Another crucial part of the Union’s reaction relates to the role of incoming Vice Chancellor Professor Mark Smith, who succeeds Professor Paul Wellings in January. “It is of the utmost importance that the new Vice Chancellor takes a public position within the discussions as ultimately he will be leading the University over the forthcoming period,” LUSU’s recommendation says.
Shortly after his appointment, Professor Smith told the Lancaster Guardian that collaboration would not lead to redundancies and is not a way of saving money. In an interview with SCAN, he saw the consultations over summer as “a very broad range discussion about what is and isn’t possible [and] what does it mean for the institutions.”
However, Professor Smith’s input into the discussions since then has not been made explicit, neither has his reaction to the Green Paper. LUSU are calling for Professor Wellings to take a less prominent role in the process to allow Professor Smith to take over.
In making the case for collaboration, the Green Paper focuses upon the term “research power,” which is equivalent to a measure of the quantity of research produced by an institution multiplied by its accredited quality. “The principal factor that will govern the future success of Lancaster and Liverpool is unequivocally research power,” the paper argues.
Further, it says that “the major challenge facing Lancaster and Liverpool, assuming they wish to remain globally research-intensive universities, is how they might enhance their research power.”
Statistics in the Paper place Lancaster at 23rd in the UK for research power, with Liverpool 18th. It projects that a combination of the two would rank 7th. Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester Universities top the rankings.
The term “LLU,” used repeatedly in the Paper, has in itself been controversial; for many it has fuelled speculation about a merger between institutions. The Vice Chancellor has denied this.
A paper from Emeritus Professor Jim Taylor in the Department of Economics has suggested that the Green Paper does not make a strong case for collaboration because research power is the wrong criterion.
“Research power is simply a proxy for size,” Taylor argues. Proposing an alternative criterion of research quality, Taylor suggests that Lancaster stands to lose out through collaboration with Liverpool.
There is some focus upon students in the Green Paper, although LUSU argue that this is not enough. Among the benefits identified, it says that “collaboration could increase student choice within subject areas by the offer of a greater number of modules. This could drive the development of new areas of study and new degree programmes.”
The Paper touches upon the fact that “a distinctive student experience in each location” must be preserved, but ultimately focuses upon academic issues rather than those of lifestyle.
LUSU’s recommendation to the University concludes by urging that “senior management must always consider Lancaster students first.”
Asked whether greater communication on the issue was required between University Senior Management and the wider population of the University, LUSU President Gardiner said “absolutely […] I think it would have helped.”
The Paper “doesn’t paint enough of a picture, it doesn’t show enough of what’s going on. Because of that it’s hard for people to talk about it, it’s not as informed a discussion as would be fruitful.”