University challenge

19th March 2004 at 00:00
lex Neil's proposal (page four) for one university per city may make superficial sense to outside observers of education. The existence of at least two universities in all the major cities (apologies to Inverness) must seem an unnecessary extravagance. But the diversity of British higher education is one of its strengths, and the critics might be surprised at how little real overlap there is, once they scratch the surface of the institutions they would like to merge.

One only needs to mention Edinburgh, Napier and Heriot-Watt universities in the same breath to see how indigestible a merger might be. Even apparently similar subjects are approached in very different ways for different audiences. A link-up between similar institutions would make better sense: Edinburgh and Glasgow universities? Now there would be a splash to make an international impact.

What is needed if Scotland is to maintain competitiveness in research is more collaboration between institutions. This is on the way in England with networks such as the White Rose consortium and London Higher, which are breaking down longstanding rivalries as a matter of necessity.

In Scotland, the bilateral link is the collaborative instrument of choice, but the level of activity is no less. Far better to let the shared interests of researchers break down the boundaries, rather than struggling with cultural differences in unwanted institutional mergers.

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