Universities across Europe are talking about merging or forming alliances and concentrating faculties like never before.

Since the start of the 21st century, the European University Association (EUA) has recorded nearly 100 on its interactive merger map.

And the pace is accelerating, with eight super-universities or clusters identified in 2012; 12 in 2013 and 14 in 2014.

So what’s driving the merger mania?

Is it a response to funding cuts? Or a way of climbing world university rankings by bringing the best brains and resources together to attract more students and bigger research grants?

Thomas Estermann, director for governance, funding and public policy at the EUA, which represents universities and university associations from 47 countries, says the main reasons include:

  • Pooling academic talent and infrastructure to increase quality and encourage interdisciplinary research.
  • Streamlining human and other resources to achieve efficiency.
  • Increasing staff and student numbers to give super-universities more clout.
  • Overcoming fragmentation; avoiding duplication and merging universities and research centres to meet society’s needs
  • Coping with demographic decline of young people.
  • Strengthening profile and reputation globally, through increased size and by developing niche disciplines and international collaboration.
Tallin University, Estonia

Tallin University, Estonia

The EUA says mergers gathered pace from 2005 onwards, with Denmark and Estonia being the early trendsetters.

The University of Tallin in Estonia’s capital absorbed eight smaller institutes and colleges; and overall the number of higher education institutions was cut from 41 to 29 between 2000-2012 in the small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people.

In Denmark, the number of universities was reduced from 12 to eight and government research centres integrated into the university sector with the aim of increasing the global competitiveness of Danish higher education and research.

French fashion

 France now leads the way with a government-inspired initiative to get its universities and research centres into umbrella-like communities – communes – and then to consider full-blown mergers between willing partners.

Since 2013, 12 of the 30 mergers and communes recorded by the EUA were French ones.

One of the biggest amalgamations, the Paris-Saclay ‘federal university’, includes the highly-ranked École Polytechnique, the HEC business school and Université Paris-Sud.

Recreating the spirit of University of Paris

Students on the UPMC's main campus

Students on the UPMC’s main campus (pic by Pierre Kitmacher)

Now, it looks like Paris will go one step further following successful university mergers in Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Marseille.

In the heart of the Left Bank’s Latin Quarter, two of the capital’s most prestigious institutions – Paris-Sorbonne and Pierre & Marie Curie (UPMC) Universities – are planning to recreate the spirit of the old unified University of Paris which was torn apart after the student riots of 1968.

Back then, the French government allowed the University of Paris – one of the oldest in the world, founded around 1150 – to split into 13 autonomous universities along faculty lines, often referred to as Paris 1, 2, 3 and so on up to 13.

Separated along disciplinary lines

Professor Jean Chambaz, president of UMPC – Paris 6 – said: “One of the limitations of French universities came about 40 years ago when they separated along disciplinary lines.

“One had all sciences, another only the humanities, another just law and economics.

“We were the science and medical faculties of the Sorbonne, of the University of Paris, before the split in 1970.”

“Today UPMC’s focus is science, engineering and medicine; at Paris-Sorbonne it is arts and humanities. But to address the challenges of the world, we need to build a comprehensive university containing all these disciplines.

Recreating the old Sorbonne

One of the amphitheatres at Paris-Sorbonne University

One of the amphitheatres at Paris-Sorbonne University (pic by Olivier Jacquet)

“At the moment in Paris, we don’t have mergers, but autonomous institutions working in partnership, like our own Sorbonne University group, which includes research centres, the private INSEAD business school, as well as Paris-Sorbonne, UPMC and some other institutions.

“In February, we will have elections for presidents and boards of both Paris-Sorbonne and UPMC. Providing the new members agree, we will press ahead with a full merger and create the new university by 1 January 2018.

“In some ways we are recreating the old Sorbonne, but in the 21st century.

“Others in our group may follow, but are waiting to see how things turn out.”

A university to rival the best!

Professor Barthelemy Jobert, President of Paris-Sorbonne University – Paris 4 – is enthusiastic about creating a powerful global research university in central Paris covering all disciplines and capable of rivalling the best universities in the world.

“Success will be creating a new model of a global university in France, with independent autonomous faculties as well as a Presidency who will speak for the whole university.”

The French government favours such mergers, but is leaving it to the university groupings to decide who merges with whom.

Profs Barthelemy Jobert (L) with Jean Chambaz (R)

Profs Barthelemy Jobert (L) with Jean Chambaz (R) (pic by Olivier Jacquet)

Clearly Professors Jobert and Chambaz see eye-to-eye on the merger, but say it is vital to win support from academics, technical and admin staff and students.

Prof Jobert says ‘bottom-up’ initiatives work best. “It is important to engage the whole community and get them to discover they need each other.”

European merger successes

With the goal of repeating the success of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, KIT has increased student numbers by 20% since 2009 and concentrated research on fields relevant to social, economic and technical needs, such as energy and mobility.

It enjoyed a 50% boost to research income between 2009 and 2013.

The new Aalto University in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, is another example of institutions coming together with government backing.

It saw the merging of Helsinki School of Economics, Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Arts and Design, Helsinki, in 2010, with the aim of turbo-charging Finland’s higher education system and tackle its relative poor performance in comparison to Finland’s top ratings in the PISA world league tables for primary and secondary education.

In a KIT laboratory (pic by Andrea Fabry)

In a KIT laboratory, Germany (pic by Andrea Fabry)

“The new university was designed to put innovation and impact on the knowledge economy at the heart of things,” said Aalto’s Vice President (External Relations), Hannu Seristö, and the new university jumped from 187th in the 2014 QS World Rankings to 139th spot this year.

But not all mergers are so enthusiastically supported by government!

The University of Lisbon and Technical University of Lisbon, Portugal, on which the new Paris merger is partly modelled, had to ‘actively convince’ public authorities and the Ministry to secure approval to merge into Universidade de Lisboa in 2012/13 and justify the costs involved.

Thomas Estermann from the EUA.

Thomas Estermann from the EUA.

And that’s just the point, says the EUA’s Thomas Estermann. “Mergers need a lot of time and energy to be successful. Saving money should not be the main reason to merge as return on investment can take a long time.

“They shouldn’t be forced. We’re talking about autonomous institutions and not a company takeover and it is important to communicate the advantages and win over staff, students and other stakeholders before undertaking such upheaval.”

* This blog is a slightly longer version of a feature for the BBC online News site, headlined ‘Big is beautiful for merging universities’, published 25 November 2015, as part of the Knowledge Economy series.

Main photo: Place été, Paris-Sorbonne University (pic by Olivier Jacquet)