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Posted by on Feb 6, 2014

Institute of Education merging with University College, London: my take

I received word from a university email that my doctoral university, the Institute of Education is merging with University College, London. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about this merger, or at least strong enough feelings to object to it as I find mergers and dissolutions to be a natural part of organizational culture. I know there will undoubtedly be a human cost (discussed later), but I think organizations need to find efficiencies. That is what they need to do.

Pragmatically and selfishly, I ask myself what my diploma will list as my university (I have a choice between UCL and IoE) and what benefit or disadvantage that will pose to my career inside or outside academia. I ask myself if I will still go and see the same supervisors in the same location as I had before when visiting London. I ask if blue will still be the dominant color in the logo scheme. Important stuff, as you can see.  Much will remain the same for me, a doctoral student not even living in the UK and interacting with the university primarily through email.

My perspective is forged from having lived through two mergers as an employee (in a non-profit organization outside of, but serving, higher education), as an American with experience in both US (undergraduate, one Masters degree) and UK (second Masters degree, doctoral work) higher education. From that perspective, I have boiled down a few responses to the merger, responses that I am sure will change when more information becomes apparent.

This is a positive (overall)

I think much of what was being said in the statement to students was indeed true. This does represent a positive development for research, for impact of that research, for access to resources and funding. As an individual researcher, there is an outside chance this broadens my access to a host of other resources, research networks, scholars working on similar research issues. It strengthens the combined organization. It also brings all involved closer to realizing what is often our collective (if obfuscated) focus: that we are here to explore and research and hypothesize and solve problems, real-world issues, which I think UCL Provost Professor Malcolm Grant stated directly:

“The extremely fruitful discussions between our two institutions over the past few months have highlighted the real opportunities for closer collaboration that a strategic partnership will bring. I believe we can make a real difference to addressing some of the major social, health and educational questions of today.”

Fruitful doesn’t necessarily suggest a lack of contention, but the message gets through. There are major questions out there that we, as academics, are charged with exploring and answering. There isn’t anyone else to do it, or anyone interested in doing it with due respect to process and equity. If this “collaboration” or “partnership” or “merger” brings us closer to answering these questions, let’s get started. We occasionally need a certain cold precision in our logic to answer difficult questions, so if this merger allows for a structure to emerge that supports that logic, I am for it. But we shouldn’t ignore the inevitable in this process.

Marketing language sanitizes a power discrepancy

I worked in marketing in my previous iteration in non-profit land. I am slightly less familiar with its use in UK higher education, but I suspect the terms used are still signals and signposts in a broader chain of events. I know “partnerships” are not “mergers.” I know mergers are euphemisms for absorptions. I know that the larger organization will, inevitably and instinctively, take over the smaller one. Even without malice, even with benevolent intent, the smaller organization to some degree or another, ceases to exist. Ideas, mantras, research foci, and branding remain, but the organization ceases to function as an independent entity. This is an inevitable and ultimately a beneficial process. Otherwise, mergers fail to see any positive results if two heads exist on one body.

Marketing is designed to soften this process for those who are averse to change and that is natural enough. I have no issue with that. However, there are serious implications for these processes to those who work for the Institute of Education, particularly the support staff.

You might be asking where in that press release does it say merger. It doesn’t. That language was saved for the student email we all received (along with, presumably, staff). That language focused much more on the important issue as students see it:

Reputationally, UCL is 4th in the QS World Rankings and merger would give the work of the IOE enhanced global recognition and much greater reach. It has the potential to unlock up to £40 million of investment in IOE’s facilities and academic infrastructure over the next five years – a once in a lifetime opportunity to secure the Institute’s world-leading position as the pre-eminent school for Education and the Social Sciences.

Reputation, ranking, prestige, money. That makes sense, these two different messages, and if I were involved in the drafting of these from a marketing perspective, I would more than likely strike this different tone with two very different audiences. The press release for the general public alludes to the merger, but doesn’t say the word directly.

The partnership will also bring together the IOE’s expertise in teacher education and development with UCL’s experience of the UCL Academy and widening participation to provide a framework for school improvement and pupil attainment in London.

The two institutions will also explore joint working in estates, information technology and procurement, as well as shared student services.

This “joint working in estates, information technology and procurement, as well as shared student services” leads me directly to my next point about redundancy.

Redundancy is removed, on a long enough timeline

Another natural process, a beneficial one for the organization, is the removal of redundancy. Professors and teaching staff (adjunct or not) are needed to provide the service, the focus, the draw for the students. From what I can gather, UCL doesn’t have an Education programme so this fills a gap in their offerings (if that is indeed something they were looking to do).

Institute of Education faculty will find a home in a highly reputable institution. However, the support staff from IoE, the administrators, the cashiers, etc. are in a precarious position as UCL will have staff performing very much the same role. The whole point of mergers is to pool collective capacity and minimize redundancy, otherwise you never see the benefits of the merger. Hence, support staff from IoE are in a position of redundancy. Rarely are staff from the larger organization considered redundant, not surprisingly. If you are the smaller organization merging with the larger one, it is easier and more productive to consider yourself redundant and prepare yourself for the uncertainty. It might take a few years for these redundancies to be acted on (they have already been spotted in the initial appraisals before the mergers), but they will be acted upon. The health of the organization, rightly or wrongly, is considered above the needs of any individual worker. It is designed to evolve to survive; that is in its basic DNA. That involves finding efficiencies and cutting redundancies. This involves people inevitably losing their livelihoods.

I lived through a merger where my small organization (and small, yet dynamic service) were absorbed into a larger organization. This happened quickly (as these things do), without an apparent plan as to integration (which is evidence of this happening at a very high, board of trustees kind of level), and without visible leadership to explain why. I watched, slowly, this service wither from neglect. I watched layoffs and employee attritions (many just left). I made myself useful and constantly wondered as to my own fate, which made me a better, more agile professional. We were being hoisted upon a larger organization that didn’t really want us at the order of people who had little to no day to day involvement in either of our two services. It was painful. Ultimately, I suspect, it was necessary.

The merger between UCL and IoE will eventually, if done right, generate greater impact to our academic and research missions. It will free up resources (money and facilities). It will lead to a strengthening, rather than a weakening. Yet there is a human cost. Some people will leave. Some will wait it out. Some will be laid off or terminated. That is the reality of all of this. It is the contradiction of organizational improvement.

As an American studying in the UK system (as someone who has lived outside of his own country for a very long time- 10+ years), I consider myself relatively adept at translating cultural differences into discernible actions and etiquette. I will never be British or Korean or anything other than American and I have never tried to be, but I do try and blend as much as possible. I read the room and follow along as much as I am able. Towards that end, I had always tried to find an analogy for the University of London to other systems. I loved that there were so many universities in such a small radius (IoE being next to UCL, SOAS, Birbeck, etc.); it created a dynamic atmosphere just by walking through the neighborhoods and centering on the Senate House Library. I loved it, but recognized that there is a hefty cost in maintaining so many discrete universities under such an umbrella (the University of London).

My Americanism took over and I was immediately thinking, inappropriately, in terms of efficiencies and redundancies. I fear that this thinking has, to some degree, crept into UK higher education. It might be necessary; there indeed might be no money to support such disaggregated structures. I accept that. But the diversity is real. The differing allegiances are real. The energy that generates is real. It all affects the academic output, the courageousness and voraciousness of the ideas emerging from these environments.

I suppose, simply put, I hope that this merger between IoE and UCL stimulates this voracity even further. I do hope.

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