‘Shotgun marriage’ is cancelled at Dundee universities

TWO of Scotland’s universities look to have avoided an unpopular merger after pledging to work more closely on the courses they offer.

Dundee and Abertay University had been told by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to explore a merger as a way of reducing costs.

But the universities, with Dundee College, yesterday said they would remain “autonomous and independent bodies” following talks with the SFC, the body that provides Scottish Government cash for higher education.

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The possibility of the merger first arose after education secretary Mike Russell said in September that he wanted to see closer collaboration across both the higher education and further education sectors.

However, Dundee and Abertay had expressed dismay at being the subject of merger talks, leading Labour leader Iain Gray to accuse the SNP Government of attempting to force a “shotgun marriage”.

In a joint statement, the universities said: “Following a very open and positive discussion, Abertay University, Dundee University and Dundee College have agreed that they will remain autonomous and independent bodies, with distinctive missions, visions and values.

“The three institutions have further agreed, with the support of the Scottish Funding Council, to engage in detailed discussions on options for closer collaboration that will enhance their contribution to achieving the Scottish Government’s aims and objectives for post-16 education across Scotland”.

The three institutions said discussions would now take place over “aligning” the curricula of the two universities and the college, initially in areas of life sciences and sports education.

The statement continued: “These discussions will take place in the context of the Scottish Government’s White Paper on reforming post-16 education in Scotland, and the three institutions reaffirm their collective commitment to creating improved life chances for people in the Dundee city-region, and thereby helping to create jobs and growth”.

Concerns about a possible merger emerged after the Scottish Funding Council called for the recruitment of a new principal at Abertay to be delayed.

Professor Bernard King confirmed he was retiring from Abertay in August after he was controversially suspended by the institution earlier in the year.

In a letter sent to Abertay University in September, SFC chief executive Mark Batho had made clear the need to move “quite quickly” with the merger talks.

While a merger now seems off the agenda for the time being, ministers retain the power to force merger in the future.

Abertay is one of the smallest universities in the UK, about half the size of the average institution. It has a roll of 3,250 full-time undergraduates, 600 postgraduates and 500 staff. Its larger neighbour, Dundee, has about 17,000 students and 3,000 staff.

Mr Russell said: “This is precisely the kind of collaborative thinking behind the Scottish Government’s post-16 agenda.

“I am delighted to see three institutions of such repute cementing their relationship in such a way that will improve the delivery of further and higher education locally but also have a bearing on Scotland’s international reputation for excellence in education”.