University Mergers Sweep Across Europe

Leaders hope larger, more-diverse institutions will improve research

Eva Persson for The Chronicle

Mikko Koria (shown here lecturing) is development director of Aalto U.'s International Design Business Management Program, a precursor of the merger that created Aalto.
January 02, 2011

The cluster of glass buildings that serves as the headquarters of Nokia, the global telecommunications giant that is Finland's largest company, is a short stroll from the main campus of Aalto University, one of the country's newest higher-education institutions.

But the symbolic shadow the company casts across Finland's edu­cational, business, and even political landscape is long and omni­present.

"Where is the new Nokia?" asks Tuula Teeri, a molecular geneticist who was recruited from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology to serve as Aalto's inaugural rector. "We need to stimulate innovation."

That concern was one of the driving forces behind the creation of Aalto, which resulted from the merger of three institutions—in arts and design, business, and technology. By bringing together such seemingly disparate fields, Aalto's founders hope to stimulate new research and thus maintain the economic competitiveness that Finland has earned largely through the success of its technology sector.

Aalto's creation is a cornerstone of a new national higher-education strategy. It is also part of a wave of university mergers happening across Europe in recent years, driven by concerns over economic competitiveness, research quality, and international reputation.

In Finland, the number of universities has decreased from 20 to 15 in just a few years. In Denmark, 25 universities and research institutions have been reduced to eight universities and three research institutions since 2007. In France, the University of Strasbourg—the country's largest institution—was formed in 2009 through the merger of three universities that had been loosely linked before being broken up in the early 1970s in a national trend at that time.

And last month the merger of two universities—one of which had itself been formed from two institutions early last year—to create a new "super-university" was announced in Wales, where the government has pledged to reduce the number of institutions through mergers.

In those and other countries, including Belgium, Germany, and Sweden, universities of varying size and reputational heft have relinquished their institutional independence in exchange for the perceived advantages that come with being subsumed into a larger institution.

In some instances, the impetus for change was largely from the bottom up. Elsewhere the mergers resulted from changes in national policy to streamline university financing and concentrate disciplinary expertise.

Increased Autonomy

For the policy makers and university administrators behind the recent university mergers, the specter of global rankings looms large. Some explicitly acknowledge rankings to be part of the motivation behind their decision-making; others say the tables are less of a driving force but still acknowledge their influence.

But other factors are also at play, including shifts in attitudes across Europe about university autonomy and whether all institutions are—or should be—considered equal.

Most European universities have historically been public institutions with limited independence from government oversight and financial control. But this model is being reworked in many countries, as institutions seek more say over their administration and public money dwindles, or as governments focus their spending more specifically.

Across Europe, the long-held conceit that all of a country's universities are essentially equal has also given way to an acceptance of institutional hierarchies. Germany's Excellence Initiative, which singles out select institutions for billions of dollars in extra financing, has been the clearest example of this shift.

Recent changes in Finland reflect a similar transition.

"We have this tradition of a higher-education system with no status hierarchy," says Jussi Välimaa, of the Finnish Institute for Education Research at the University of Jyväskylä. The decision to single out Aalto for a concentration of national resources is "a radical change in our higher-education policy."

Mr. Välimaa points out that the university's creation paralleled sweeping reforms across Finnish higher education. As of the beginning of this year, all of the country's universities became independent legal entities, with greater autonomy and economic power, including the ability to own their own property. Aalto is one of two institutions that now enjoy semiprivate status as foundations. And it is in the final stages of an ambitious fund-raising campaign, backed by generous government subsidies, meant to help catapult it to "the list of top universities in the world," says Jyri Tawast, director of the effort.

Aalto has raised 120 million euros of its goal of 200 million euros, set for next June. The government has pledged to match funds raised from private donors by a ratio of 2.5:1. That means that Aalto's expected 200 million euros will translate into 700 million euros, or about $920-million, once the government's matching funds arrive.

Motivated by Rankings

In France, a raft of national reforms to overhaul the higher-education system includes a plan for all universities to become officially autonomous by 2012. The government endorses closer links among institutions as a way of driving some of the country's institutions up the international rankings.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the nation's president, has taken France's relatively poor showing on the best-known rankings to heart and has spoken repeatedly of his goal of having two French universities in the top 20 and 10 in the top 100 of the world rankings.

The French government has helped spur the merger trend with increased financing for 17 clusters of universities and research bodies that have been formed since 2007. The cooperation required for their formation has in some cases become the genesis of closer alliances and full-fledged mergers.

Andrée Sursock, a senior adviser at the European University Association, says the guiding principle behind university mergers in France is to expand research capacity through interdisciplinary work.

The ambitious Saclay Campus project, on the outskirts of Paris, envisions a grouping of some two dozen universities, grandes écoles (as France's elite schools of higher education are known), clusters, and research institutes. Its director has said that the explicit goal of the $6-billion project, which is due for completion by 2015, is to rank among the top 10 universities in the world.

In Denmark, some academics have gladly chosen the merger route. Sven Frøkjær is dean of the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark's largest university. Until 2007 he was rector of the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences, an independent institution of some 1,300 students and 500 staff that, although highly regarded in its field, "would never have had a chance" to feature in any world rankings, he concedes.

In 2007 the Danish government announced a process of "voluntary mergers" intended to strengthen the country's research and educational capabilities, increase ties with business and industry, and improve institutions' ability to attract international research financing, such as European Union money. The small institution found itself highly sought after by potential merger suitors.

"We were quite attractive, and discussed other options," says Mr. Frøkjær, before ultimately deciding that becoming part of the University of Copenhagen offered the best possibilities for curricular development and interdisciplinary research.

Given the growing weight assigned to university rankings, the push in many countries toward institutional mergers is understandable, says Simon Marginson, of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, an expert on the rise of the global university.

Research prowess is heavily weighted by most rankings, and institutional size counts more than per-capita research performance on measures such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, the most influential global ranking.

"Many nations are looking to put together areas of research strength so that it will show up in the rankings," Mr. Marginson says. "It's really just simply a matter of the way the index works." If the Shanghai tables measured research on the basis of per capita output rather than institutional size, he says, "we would see a trend toward disaggregations" rather than mergers.

Inspiration by Design

In Finland, Aalto's origins lie in a national discussion about the need to establish a new university to foster innovation and compete on the international stage alongside the University of Helsinki, which regularly places in Shanghai's top 100.

The proposal was controversial, says Mr. Välimaa, noting that at least one institution objected to the plan, pointing out that it already possessed the kind of interdisciplinary breadth that was being discussed for the new "innovation" university.

The idea for Aalto, in its current form, originated with the former rector of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, who proposed that if the country really wanted to stimulate innovation, his institution should join forces with the Helsinki University of Technology and the Helsinki School of Economics.

"We thought that these three areas—technology, art and design, and business—could do something quite useful in the long term together," says Jari Jokinen, Aalto's director of policy and foresight. The impetus was "not to increase the number of students, but to increase quality and concentrate on higher quality in research and education."

The interdisciplinary approach embodied in Aalto is in evidence at the Design Factory, a cavernous, garagelike structure on the university's suburban Otaniemi campus. The space is subdivided into areas that can serve interchangeably as classrooms, places to eat, social space, or meeting rooms, all of which can be reconfigured if more or less space is needed.

In the machine shop, a wooden model airplane is being worked on by two students. Maija Itkonen, an Aalto alumna and chief executive of the company PowerKiss,, demonstrates its cordless charging device in a room that serves as the fledgling firm's headquarters.

Andrew Clutterbuck, the factory's development coordinator and chief coach, presides over the setup from a reception area that doubles as a coffee bar. Bright primary colors are splashed across walls, and the furnishings tend toward minimalist and modern. The space evokes a kind of anything-goes, start-up vibe. Nokia is the factory's main corporate sponsor.

Strong ties with industry permeate much of the discussion of innovation at Aalto, and there is little evidence of the qualms that often prevail in academia about links with the business world.

"Finland is to some extent a club, and people know each other," says Jyri Tawast, the university's fund-raising director. "We are used to talking openly."

Mikko Koria is development director of Aalto's International Design Business Management Program, a master's program that began in 1995 as a minor concentration in a joint master's program run by the three institutions. The program, structured around a yearlong project with a business partner, was something of a precursor to the institutional merger that created the university more than a decade later.

"We did not cause the merger, but we were a positive example in a process that was somehow already under way in the minds of people," says Mr. Koria, an architect with a doctorate in business administration. "We were a good example of what interdisciplinarity can achieve."

Merger Mania?

The cross-disciplinary research and engagement that is on display at the Design Factory is a powerful argument for the kinds of institutional fusions that have been taking place across Europe, some observers say. "All else being equal, there is an underlying logic that bigger is better," especially in the sciences, says Mr. Marginson. Larger institutions have "the potential of more-concentrated firepower, more diversity, more potential for cross-fertilization."

For Aalto, success could mean something as prosaic as a better mobile phone. As Ms. Teeri, the rector, observes, science, design, and marketing are increasingly connected. "You need design, not only because you need beautiful things, but increasingly you need designers who can understand what the consumer needs," she says.

Ultimately, whether a merger is successful may depend on what motivated it. Already some academics fear that the trend could become something of a fad in higher education.

"What would worry me," says Ms. Sursock, of the European University Association, "is if this becomes the fashion, and ministries start encouraging or providing incentives for mergers when they don't have any raison d'être."


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