Romania eyes university mergers to boost international competitiveness

10 Jan 2024 | News

Merging institutions can bring economies of scale, strengthening finances and research - and attracting staff and students. But vested interests often block this route to moving up the league tables 

Mihnea Costoiu, rector of the National University for Science and Technology Politehnica Bucharest. Photo: Universitatea Politehnica din București / Facebook

When at the beginning of the current academic year rector Mihnea Costoiu stood in the middle of a sports hall and welcomed thousands of first year undergraduates to the National University for Science and Technology Politehnica Bucharest, he was not in Romania’s capital, but 100 kilometres away, in the smaller town of Pitești.

The town’s university had merged earlier in 2023 with Romania’s largest technical university, and among the many reasons for this move, one was repeatedly highlighted during the ceremony: “We hope that next year will bring us the joy in seeing this new national university in the most prestigious international rankings.”

The merger of the two universities was the largest since the fall of communism and took place in a dispiriting year. For the first time in 17 years, no Romanian university was ranked in the Shanghai university ranking of 2023. That prompted several educational thought leaders, such as the rectors of the Babeș-Bolyai University and the Timișoara West University, to push university mergers as a possible means of strengthening the system.

According to the legislation that was passed by Romania’s parliament to enable the Bucharest/ Pitești merger, the aim is improve the job prospects of graduates, consolidate human resource management, and promote the development of attractive and sustainable careers for university staff.

Sharing resources, such as laboratories and administration systems will improve management and efficiency. It will provide economies of scale that will allow the merged university to extract more value from its assets and financial resources, and reduce cost overheads. It will also make the university more competitive in international collaborations, boosting national and international attractiveness and extending opportunities for teaching and research.

Academic consolidation

Liviu Andreescu, a professor at the University of Bucharest who has studied university mergers, says they benefit students in the smaller city. “They could benefit from higher quality services - better designed courses, refreshed teaching staff, access to better research infrastructure, exchanges of experience with other domestic campuses, more interesting international mobility [opportunities], and so on.”

A 2018 study in the journal Higher Education Policy shows how university mergers have become a widespread phenomenon across Europe, driven by motivations including financial constraints, strategic aspirations and a quest for international standing.

In France, three universities in Nancy and the University of Metz merged to form the University of Lorraine in 2012. This aligned with national policies aiming to reduce centralisation and fragmentation in French higher education. After the merger, the ranking immediately improved, becoming better than any of its constituent institutions. Since then, The University of Lorraine has maintained a stable ranking of 200-301 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities.

In the UK, Manchester University merged with its sister institution, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in 2004. The ranking improvement was visible from year one, with the university jumping from 78th in 2004, to 53rd in 2005.

However, evidence from China’s higher education mergers shows an initial rise, but subsequent decline in research performance post-merger, which is attributed to loss of cohesion.

In addition, there are growing questions about the value of rankings that prioritise quantitative criteria, as shown by Utrecht University's recent withdrawal from the Times Higher Education rankings and the increasing support for initiatives like the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment.

Global rankings which mostly focus on criteria such as publications and citations may lose significance as the research assessment reform movement makes the case for evaluating quality rather than quantity.

Four mergers in Romania

Prior to the latest merger, the Babes-Bolyai University absorbed a smaller university of 1,700 students in 2020. In 2018, the Medicine University in Târgu Mures consolidated with another local university. The oldest merger was in 2011, when the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca merged with the North University of Baia Mare.

“There was no consensus about the merger at the time”, says vice rector Petrică Pop-Sitar, who is now responsible for oversight of the Baia Mare branch. “While 11 years ago in Baia Mare there was a balance between those who wanted an academic merger and those who opposed it, nowadays everybody appreciates this union.” The move aimed to resolve financial problems and poor rankings that threatened the existence of masters’ and PhD programmes.

Pop-Sitar highlights improved education quality and increased research collaboration as the largest benefits from the UTCN-Baia Mare merger. The university functions with two different “centres”, one in Cluj, with nine engineering faculties, and one in Baia Mare, with three faculties. Representation in leadership is proportional and online communication and document management simplify coordination.

Romania's poor performance in international university rankings has many underlying causes. Most eastern European countries in the EU have at least one university ranked among the top 1,000 in the 2023 Academic Ranking of World Universities, including nine in Poland, six in the Czech Republic and four in Hungary. However, Romania and Bulgaria are absent from the ranking.

Romania's exclusion reflects years of under investment in research, amounting to less than 0.2% of GDP, which has led to financial unpredictability for research grants and teams.

A national education strategy embraced since 2014 by president Klaus Iohannis has yet to yield positive results. After years of debate, new education laws based on the “Educated Romania” strategy have been criticised for insufficiently addressing PhD plagiarism and for enabling sitting rectors to extend their terms — an opportunity which an overwhelming majority of them took.

After last year's rankings, Daniel David, rector of Babes-Bolyai University, called for a restructuring of Romania's academic system, which was established under communism in 1948. He argued that separating medicine from general universities and a lack of support for consolidating resources has contributed to the poor performance. David said Romania needs to concentrate its academic resources through university mergers and consolidations.

Preserving the culture

However, many Romanian universities hesitate to consider mergers as a way to improve their ranking. Viorel Scripcariu, rector of the University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Iași, said, “While such mergers can offer certain benefits, such as consolidating resources and enhancing research capabilities, they should not be seen as a one-size-fits-all solution. It is essential to consider the particularities of each institution, as well as the long-term impact of such changes on the quality of education, university autonomy and academic traditions.”

It is important, Scripcariu stresses, to preserve the specialisation and unique profile of the university – thus excluding, for example, a merger with local universities that have a different profile.

Iași is one of Romania’s largest academic cities, with five public universities, each with a different profile: general, engineering, medicine, arts, and life sciences. Even though most of them are all well-positioned in national rankings, none are in the top 1,000 Shanghai ranking.

Andreescu says a merger, “in theory at least” could lead to the creation of strong academic centres and the rational use of resources, especially large research infrastructures.

However, he sees a very little chance of powerful universities joining forces due to loss of power over decision-making. But mergers might be appealing especially for Romania's traditional universities taking over smaller institutions. “They have the brand, the experience, and the connections - academic, but also social or political – to leverage. To a certain extent, expansion can be financially efficient, especially if local university infrastructures are taken over. And small universities may prefer takeovers to shutting down.”

This seems to be the rationale for Costoiu. After the merger, the combined institution was renamed the National University of Science and Technology Politehnica Bucharest, underling the fact the university is no longer just local. Costoiu also said he had engaged other universities, including private ones, in discussions about further consolidation.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up