The future of universities – ‘critical mass’?

In 1980 I got my first job as an academic – I became Lecturer in Industrial Relations at Trinity College Dublin. This particular post was in the Business School, and so I joined the seven other lecturers (including just one professor) who made up that School. So of course we were tiny. But we knew each other well, and were able to meet daily at 11 am or so for a cup of tea and a good discussion or argument; and the relatively small number of students who took our programme were pretty much all well known to us; I believe they got a good education.

A few years later the view began to emerge in the world of business schools that you could not be taken seriously unless you had ‘critical mass’. What exactly that meant was always a bit opaque, but put at its most simple it meant that you needed to have a lot of academics. Business Schools should be able to teach marketing, and human resources, and accounting, and organisational theory, and strategy; and to do all that successfully you needed to have lots and lots of people. And if you were going to have many academics, to pay for them you needed whole armies of students.

By the time I took over responsibility for the Business School at the University of Hull in 1996 precise numbers were being applied to this thesis. I now forget what the number was, but it was in the region of 80. In other words, you needed at least 80 academics and over 1,000 students if you were to have any prospect of claiming that you were a bona fide business school.

I was reminded of this when, last week, one of the arguments being put forward for the TCD-UCD partnership was that it would create a scale that would allow the two institutions to complete internationally. But how relevant is that?

The term ‘critical mass’ actually comes from physics, and it means ‘the amount of matter needed to generate sufficient gravitational force to halt the current expansion of the universe.’ I suppose we are not too concerned right now about the expansion of the universe, but we are concerned with our own kind of ‘gravitational force’. And I think it would be fair to say that there is a widespread belief that to be competitive you need to be very big.

But is that right? If we were looking at the performance of universities in international league tables, there is no particular correlation between a university’s performance and its size. The two top ranking universities in the world, Harvard and Yale, have 19,000 and 11,398 students, respectively. Cambridge University in England has 18,396 students. On the other hand, the top ranking German university, the University of Heidelberg – which comes in at number 57 – has 27,000 students. The largest Irish university, ranked at number 108, has 17,214 students. On the other hand, the number 5 university in the world, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has just 2,000 students and only 293 professors.

It is very easy to see that the numbers are totally irrelevant. There is no evidence whatsoever that the size of a university per se has any bearing on its claim to excellence, one way or another. So for those who believe that we need to create ‘scale’ in order to compete, they are almost certainly wrong. Large concentrations of mediocrity will never trump focused excellence (though I hasten to add that I am not here referring to any Irish universities).

But for all that, critical mass does matter. It matters in the sense that if we are to have an impact in various fields of knowledge we must have available to us the full range of expertise in those areas. That means in turn that if we are small (and for a country we are very small), we need to choose those areas in which we want to be world leaders, and in those specific areas we need to build up numbers, either through those we employ or through links to others in those areas who may be working elsewhere. The name of the game is to focus. If we believe size is good, we may forget to pursue that necessary degree of focus, and we may find that all those numbers are still to spread out to make a difference in any individual field.

The task for Irish higher education over the coming period will be to identify those subject areas and to ensure that, in those areas, we have the critical mass, but also the imagination, energy and determination to apply it successfully. So while the TCD-UCD linkage may work for them (and of course I hope it does), I believe we also need smaller and more nimble and inventive institutions as well, who may be particularly useful in guiding us as a country to acquire and deploy critical mass in fields where we can then gain a serious advantage internationally for the country.

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2 Comments on “The future of universities – ‘critical mass’?”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    I would argue UL and DCU are good examples of smaller institutions shaking up the rather staid 3rd level system in Ireland with innovations like UL’s graduate medical programme and DCU’s Oscail distance learning programme.

    The problem with smaller and more nimble institutions is that to aspire to be more than a reliever and occasional gadfly to the NUI/TCD systems – to be an MIT or a Caltech or a Stanford, say – you may also need to differentiate things like staffing levels, merit pay and so on in a way that lecturer unions like to standardise, not to mention government because it allows them to fund by formula rather than by results.

    Many of these institutions require substantial fees from their students when Ireland students demand education at the same price (free) irrespective of their choice of institution or programme. The three US universities you mention and the additional two I mentioned are all private trusts, not wards of Marlborough Street.

    In a way, the ethos of the former NIHE universities (disclosure: I am a UL graduate and an Oscail graduate) might be endangered by their previous success – especially any sort of thinking within the Dept of Education that University Presidents are failing if university numbers aren’t steadily rising – we’ve seen what that kind of expectation does to corporate boardrooms. In post-secondary education, Ireland should be looking at a *roughly* stable market share for postgraduate, undergraduate, higher diploma and apprenticeship rather than believe the lie that everybody can and should go to university irrespective of their abilities, their inclinations and the needs of the labour market.

    It is also dangerous to focus on the “ancient” universities as touchstones for deciding future development paths – the fate of full service airlines yesterday and of newspapers today could be those of bricks and mortar universities tomorrow – especially if those bricks and mortar buildings are filled with ever more teaching assistants, grad students and part-timers managing larger and larger classes for a smaller and smaller “officer corps” of university deans and department heads.

  2. Iain Says:

    Of course, as a physicist I have to say that the other critical mass to which politicians usually refer is that in nuclear fission, when you reach a certain mass you spark a chain reaction. Whether it is moderated for sustainability or results in a catastrophic explosion is however the next issue…!

    But of course, its more likely that the UCD/TCD/Taoiseach’s Office approach is to recognise the enormous capital and recurrent costs associated with some technologies and that’s their economic rationale for the concentration of resources. It doesn’t however, guarantee that the badly needed new ideas will flow. There are plenty of large research institutions across the world that do not rank highly in terms of output.

    But a silly aspect of the recent announcements has been the rather specific claim for thirty thousand resulting jobs. That really is ‘extrapolating’ the data beyond what is surely reasonable. Of course, anyone can predict on a ten year scale if they are likely to have retired by then, politicians and presidents alike.


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