David Lammy, the higher education minister, going to give a talk this week. (photo: guardian.co.uk)

David Lammy, the higher education minister, going to give a talk this week. (photo: guardian.co.uk)

Universities may need to merge to survive the economic downturn, according to the British government. David Lammy, the new higher education minister, has claimed that in the face of economic collapse and large debts universities may be forced to work more closely or even merge into one. In a speech to the Universities UK conference last week Mr Lammy said ‘Do you have the right number of institutions? In the commercial sector there would have to be many mergers over the next few decades – far more than we have seen in higher education. Could more be done to encourage that among universities?’

The University of Sussex is among 12 universities that had a combined £77m in collapsed Icelandic banks and now potentially face serious deficits that could make them less able to resist a merger. There has been some suggestion that the university could become more closely linked with Brighton, as Lammy phrased to create ‘new forms of partnerships or federations.’ In a statement yesterday the University was quick to stress that there were currently no plans for merging with Brighton University but did highlight the close links between the institutions. ‘Where there are opportunities for closer working with Brighton on improving services to students or where there are good future academic opportunities that reflect common strengths of the two universities we will of course explore them. But Brighton and Sussex are very different universities with different missions and characteristics, and there are absolutely no discussions or plans for merger,’ the statement read.

Mr Lammy’s speech is also relevant because of the continuing battle the university management has had to fight to get through a series of unpopular reforms to its structure. In the same speech he also argued for ‘greater specialisation’ in universities with unsuccessful or unprofitable departments being closed down. He argued that management should have ‘choices about withdrawing from activities, choices which may be uncomfortable ones for those who have grown used to thinking about a traditional model of university’.
In the last year the Education Not for Sale (ENS) campaign was set up at Sussex to fight the “marketisation” of higher education (the perception that education is becoming a service to pay for rather than a universal right). The campaign was setup by students and staff in an attempt to resist changing the white paper set out by the management and culminated in mass protests at the end of the last academic year. Adam Farrell, USSU’s education officer and active in ENS, said ‘It is exactly this specialisation that we are fighting against. It [specialisation] didn’t work for secondary school academies and it’s not going to work for higher education. Specialisation does not favour academic diversity and restricting academic content is not the best way to stimulate innovation. If higher education was properly funded then subjects could be taught on academic worth not on financial viability’.

It appears though that the government will continue to push the agenda towards efficiency, and in the credit crunch the chances of the mass investment Farrell demands are diminishing. The financial uncertainty that Sussex faces may make the management less likely to resist pressures to move towards closer integration.

This year was the first year that the Students’ Unions of Sussex and Brighton had held a joint freshers’ ball, the largest in the country. Similarly the Brighton and Sussex Medical School is a joint project between the two universities and has been a success. In the past, discussions of closer collaboration have always been hampered by the Universities different academic expertise and experience.

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