Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Should we see more university mergers?

When should universities merge? The recent examples I have witnessed were due to economic hardship, where one college could simply not meet ends and was taken over by another one. There is also a new trend in France to merge universities that had previously been split apart, as part of the eternal higher education reform in this country. Many universities grew so large that they were split along sciences lines (natural, engineering, social sciences, humanities), only to realize that French universities were then really hurting in international rankings. But none of this follows any reasoning about what is best from a social point of view.

Marisa Hidalgo-Hidalgo and Guadalupe Valera try to get to this by using a bit of theory, comparing a university monopoly to a duopoly. A monopoly can bargain better for lower wages and better faculty, and it can create synergies. But a duopoly encourages better competition for excellence. The overall results is that the more heterogeneous universities are, the easier a merger will turn a societal benefit. The current merger craze in France is thus appropriate, but for a different reason.

Yet the model does not allow to take into account some very important aspects of education. Think for example about the diversity of classes than can be offered in a larger institution. And that includes the French mergers, as now there is a potential for students to take classes outside of their field and thus emulate something like a liberal arts education. After all a big drawback of European and especially French education is the excessively specialized education, leading to a workforce lacking flexibility.

American colleges could also benefit from mergers. Think about all these tiny colleges that can barely offer a halfway complete curriculum for the most popular majors. These micro-colleges are expensive for students and pay actually very little to faculty who have to teach extremely varied classes and struggle to do tat well. There is definitely scope for taking advantage of some economies of scale here. But merging large, complete universities, like what the authors have in mind, is definitely less advantageous. Imagine if Columbia University and New York University were to merge. There would be little to gain in a programmatic sense, and I do not think there would much pressure on faculty wages. After all, the market for good faculty is national, if not international.

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