A new study says effective communications are essential to securing the buy-in of staff, students and other stakeholders for university mergers.
The report from the European University Association, or EUA, reveals a quickening of the pace of mergers and concentrations of higher education institutions across Europe.
Timely then that the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ association, EUPRIO, made mergers a key theme of a masterclass at its last conference in Innsbruck, when delegates heard from Isabel França and Aase Bak Pedersen on lessons from Lisbon and Aarhus.
The new EUA report, University Mergers in Europe, confirms the increasing trend – with 55 mergers between 2009 and 2014, up from 25 in the preceding five years in the 25 higher education systems under review.
In some countries mergers and concentrations are driven by highly funded government initiatives to foster international excellence, as has been the case, for example, in Finland, France and Denmark.
But in other countries, such as England and Portugal, mergers have a more isolated phenomenon and are often driven by the universities themselves.
A positive image is crucial
Whatever the drivers, communicating a positive image of the merger is crucial, say the report’s authors Enora Bennetot Pruvot, Thomas Estermann and Thomas Mason.
Their report is the latest in a series of studies looking at strategies to increase funding efficiency across European higher education and is part of the EUA’s DEFINE project.
Helping to create the new identity
Effective communications ‘helps to create the new institutional identity that staff and students will start to call their own’, say the authors.
They argue ‘that old institutional identities cannot be removed or deconstructed; rather, a new, positive brand must be established that will sooner or later take precedence over the old universities in people’s minds. A well communicated mission is an essential complement to this.’
Who needs to be persuaded?
Estermann says it is important to reflect on who needs to be persuaded by the merits of a merger process.
“Institutional stakeholders vary from university to university and can cover large and diverse constituencies, even including religious groups in one of our case studies.”
One group that should always be taken into account is the local community.
“There are several examples of highly effective communication campaigns to engage the local community to secure their commitment to the process.
“This is particularly important in regions where there is a strong local rivalry between institutions; it may be necessary to reassure the locality that their own institution is not being ‘swallowed up’ by a neighbouring, larger institution that is perceived to be dominating the merger process,” said Estermann.
The EUA report argues that ‘if adequate levels of buy-in cannot be secured, the decision to continue with the merger should be re-evaluated. To continue without a solid base of staff support could lead to resentment and disappointment, and end up adversely affecting the universities’ academic output’.
The authors suggest pinpointing key projects, departments or ventures that will stand out as prestigious or exciting opportunities as a result of the merger as an effective way of winning over staff.
Don’t forget administrative staff
They also say that when developing the communication strategy, administrative staff should not be left behind in the process.
While academic staff are usually the main focus of communication strategies, administrators are often the ones who stand to lose out or experience the biggest upheaval – most notably through staff streamlining, relocation and process change, say the authors.
Therefore, while it may be good practice to first seek to promote the academic case for the merger, a second step should include demonstrating to staff that gains, including at individual level, will outweigh losses.
Aalto University, Finland
Among the case studies highlighted in the EUA report was that of Aalto University in Finland, created by a merger between Helsinki School of Economics, Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Arts and Design Helsinki. It opened its doors in 2010.
In its DEFINE self-evaluation for the EUA report, it said during the preparation stages in 2008-2009, the emphasis was on internal change communications with students, staff, faculty and alumni, student unions.
The new university also invested also heavily in external communications and marketing (media, potential investors, corporates, other universities, general audience, potential students and staff) to help a fundraising campaign.
Digital communication and the portal “innovationuniversity.fi” were also set up.
Once a month ‘morning coffees’ were organised at different campuses where former rectors and the leaders from different streams informed the staff about progress.
The Chairman of the Board sent a monthly up-date by email to faculty, staff and students which was also published for the alumni and in public newsletters and following her nomination, the new President began writing a public blog.
In an interview with EUPRIO, Aalto’s Hannu Seristö, Vice President (External Relations), said: “Finland is nearly always near the top of the PISA world league tables for primary and secondary education, but drops away in the knowledge stakes when it comes to the university-level.
“So Aalto was created as a government-backed response to turbo-charge Finland’s higher education system with a new university designed to put innovation and impact on the knowledge economy at the heart of things.”
Significant financial investments were made to ensure the university could deliver the expected results, with the government committing additional annual funding of up to 100M€ until the end of 2015.
The Finnish government also supported the formation of endowment capital of the university, along with other Finnish universities, by supporting fundraising activities with a pledge to invest 2.5 times the donations the universities received.
Aalto raised 200M€ and got government capital investment of 500M€ in return. Thus the university has a 700M€ endowment capital where the return of the capital can be freely used for funding the university operation.
In contrast to many of the examples in the EUA report, the merger between the University of Lisbon and Technical University of Lisbon took place without any encouragement from the public authorities.
‘The executive leaders of the two institutions had to actively convince representatives of the Government and Ministry to secure their approval. There was particular pressure to justify the costs involved in the process at a time when public funding for Portuguese universities was falling. Therefore in this case, the financial case for the merger took on added importance,’ says the report.
Isabel França, Director of External and International Relations at Universidade de Lisboa, and the Portuguese representative on EUPRIO’s Steering Committee, used her masterclass at last year’s conference to describe the 2012-2013 merger process.
Both partners were equivalent size and both were research universities, but each of them focused on certain academic fields in such a way that there was strong complementarity between the partners with minimal overlap, said the University’s DEFINE Focus Group feedback.
A key goal was increased internationalisation, with the merged institution seen as having enhanced potential for new educational and research initiatives and a more effective presence in the world, including in the Portuguese-speaking countries and emerging countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Isabel said: “We took a collaborative approach and showed that integrated and consistent communications had a key role in generating significant benefits and improvements to the institution.
“Creating the ULisboa’s identity was an opportunity to design a brand dissociated from the previous ones, but one that can be recognised by its academic community and its stakeholders, at national and international levels”, she said.
Merger mapping tool
The EUA report emphasises that cost-saving should not be the ‘primary driver’ for mergers and consolidations and that academic mission must take precedence.
It also says care should be taken to ensure a productive relationship with public authorities in planning and implementing the merger to ensure that there are synergies between the system-level political vision and institutional strategies.
The EUA now intends to develop a pilot ‘merger-mapping’ tool to highlight case studies to considering a merger.