Small is ugly?

The announcement of the strategic partnership between NUI Galways and the University of Limerick was made in the presence of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen TD, and senior government ministers. The following in the report by the Irish Times caught my eye:

‘He [the Taoiseach] said universities working alone were limited by their relatively small size in comparison with competitor institutions. “However, by working together they can begin to have a much bigger impact.”‘

I certainly don’t wish to detract in any way from the significance of this new partnership, but I do wish that politicians would stop talking about size as an important element in the success of a university. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that size on its own is an advantage. Harvard University, which is recognised in the league tables as the number 1 university in the world, has roughly 11,000 students, which makes it smaller than either Limerick or NUI Galway. Princeton University (also in the global top 10) has 7,500 students. And California Institute of Technology (usually know as Caltech, also in the global top 10) has 2,100 students.

On the other end of the spectrum, not one of the 100 biggest universities in the world (by any form of measurement) features in the global top 500.

The significance of this is that we must identify correctly what allows a university to score highly in global comparisons, and it isn’t size. In fact, what allows universities to lead in the rankings is very simple: resources and autonomy. The more money that universities can invest in faculty, in facilities and services, in equipment and in materials, the more likely it is that they will be key global players. And the more they can develop key strategies independently of bureaucratic control, the more effective is their use of those investments. Of course the extent to which they can strategically use their resources to maximum effect, for example by finding partners who can complement their strengths, will also make a difference, and given the extraordinary lack of resources for Irish universities even in the good times we have done very well indeed.

There are strong arguments for supporting the Galway-Limerick alliance, and I believe that their launch statement has some very exciting and entirely workable objectives. Both institutions are also committed to developing and securing collaboration with other institutions also. They have also made a strong case for the benefits they will be able to achieve from linking some of their key teams. But what will not determine their success is the combined numerical strength of their institutions.

Unless politicians understand what allows universities to be successful, they will not be able to support us in securing that aim. And if they do not understand the significance of viable resourcing in an autonomous setting, they do not understand higher education. There is still much ground to cover.

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9 Comments on “Small is ugly?”

  1. iain Says:

    You are absolutely right, though I think wishing that politicians would understand these things is perhaps somewhat of a forlorn hope. Small universities do disproportionately well in the leagues tables and indeed as you hint with the posts title, small organisations have a extra dynamism and the potential to nurture a sense of community amongst their staff that can get lost in the anonymity of large, often heavily bureaucratic organisations. In fact its this sense of scale and community that I enjoy about working and living in Galway and that’s something that is deserving of celebrating and building on rather than seeing as a deficiency.

    As for the Alliance, well as you point out it has a number of specific achievable targets and is not an exclusive partnership. It makes sense in terms, for example, of regional industry and adult education initiatives and is not as some seem to have thought judging by comments elsewhere a ‘merger’.

  2. Vincent Says:

    I believe that what you have picked up on here is the exact view of Government, and I mean government not necessarily FF. Where it is seen that the greatest numbers put through is the important thing. Not the quality of the result. For even as we were producing graduates over this past 15 years that would have been fast tracked in any other State, here they were broken sawing sawdust. Such a stupid waste.

  3. Mike Scott Says:

    Small is good, as long as small also means quick and agile…

  4. Jilly Says:

    Something I think we in the universities need to understand is that the Irish government (and perhaps the Irish people as a whole?) don’t really care about having a good education system. They do care about having a cheap education system.

    The question for us then becomes how we convince them that a good education system is worthwhile. We’ll never get anywhere however until we acknowledge that at the moment, almost no-one in a position of power in this country believes in the importance of good quality education.

  5. PRL Says:

    The scale issue is relevant to the research productivity of academic staff and the quality of PhD-level training. It it is difficult to combine breadth within a discipline (required for a good general PhD programme) plus critical mass in sub-fields (desirable for research productivity in specialised areas) if a university department is sub scale.

  6. Aoife Citizen Says:

    You beat me to it: I was going to write: TCD/UCD, UL/NUIG, DCU/NUIM/RCSI and then what about UCC and I see you have tweeted same. I feel like the autodictact in _La Nausee_, happy to judge myself by the quality of the person who makes my own thinking unoriginal.

    But it still leaves the question; what about UCC, perhaps they will split in two and then form an alliance with themselves.

    Of course DCU/NUIM/RCSI makes no sense, NUIM’s problem is that it has no sense of itself and it should sort that out first; you should stick to what you are good at, gradually merging, fully merging, with things like St Pats: what about the IMI or IPA or even NCAD? You don’t want to lumber yourselves with a medical school; it isn’t in the nature of DCU and RCSI is, well RCSI, it would make more sense to merge the three Dublin medical schools!


    • I’m not sure about that, Aoife. Merging medical schools doesn’t really create efficiencies unless you also merge the associated hospitals. On the other hand, a life sciences cluster as in DCU needs an associated medical school. By which I don’t mean that we should establish one…

      • Aoife Citizen Says:

        So will Surgeons leave the Green, it would suit them to be near the airport I guess. I hadn’t thought of the link to your medical devices and sensors groups: I’m sold. What’s the gain from NUIM?

        I amn’t sure why merging medical schools wouldn’t create efficiencies; certainly your argument from international practice for small medical schools wouldn’t work for medical schools, most leading medical schools are much larger than any of ours. As for merging the hospitals, absolutely!

  7. Aoife Citizen Says:

    . . . previous post corrected:

    I amn’t sure why merging medical schools wouldn’t create efficiencies; certainly your argument from international practice for Universities wouldn’t work for medical schools, most leading medical schools are much larger than any of ours. As for merging the hospitals, absolutely!


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