How to achieve selective greatness (for a university)

In the most recent issue of the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education there is some advice on how to develop a university’s reputation so that it will become noticed. The article lists five actions that can help achieve this, these being ‘playing to your strengths’ (provide selective focus), ‘putting a face at the top’ (getting media attention for the president), being in a ‘hot town or city’, being good at promoting or marketing the institution’s programmes, developing an external perspective to guide quality.

Let me look briefly at the first of these. The Chronicle suggests that a university that is able to prioritise four or five programmes and put resources into them will attract more attention and will be able to achieve world class excellence. However, most universities don’t see themselves as specialist institutions and may be reluctant to pursue a selective resourcing strategy.

The argument for selective focus is that most universities are not big enough to cover all subjects in a satisfactory manner. Not every university needs to have every specialism, and unless you are already established as a leading global university, you will find it very hard to maintain a large number of subject areas while protecting quality. A selective focus can of course mean a number of things: it can refer to a choice of disciplines, or to a selection of inter-disciplinary areas clustered in a thematic way, or to a focus on innovative teaching and research methodologies.

As higher education and research becomes more and more expensive, it will be necessary to avoid the risk that too many universities become generalist institutions with modest means and unremarkable achievements and outputs. It will make more sense to provide strong financial backing for a smaller number of priority areas, which can then secure an international impact.

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9 Comments on “How to achieve selective greatness (for a university)”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Noticed by who? Commentators, people who write for the Sunday supplements…should we really feel a compulsion to indulge these?
    Say any Irish university decided to be a top ten player in any field. For example say TCD, somehow, shut down its language departments so as to have a leading maths department. Well having one of those would be very nice indeed but the opportunity cost is high because students in other areas will lose out. So whereas in the US this might be an option since there is plenty of choice, realistically its doubtful that such trophy departments are a good use of tax-payers money in Ireland when we have a handful of universities and a crippling lack of resources.
    In fact most universities are pretty generalist in most countries.
    The argument for selectivity that is usually given and that you allude to is economies of scale. But what evidence do we have on this? How much cheaper is it to have a philosophy department of 40 compared to one of 20? Okay a department of 2 is probably expensive but there are not too many of those around. Maybe in areas where there are large fixed costs, like labs, this is a more compelling argument.
    And there can also be network economies between departments: any university with a serious science faculty with need some pure maths types around. Such interactions also exist within the humanities and social sciences.
    This is not an argument against excellence and there are clearly 5th rate departments around but this is generally due to bad management as far as I can see.
    So I think one has to be very careful about being selective and very clear about what the expected benefits are.


    • Kevin, I wouldn’t consider economies of scale to be relevant to this at all, but rather critical mass – which is not the same thing. To be a good generalist university you need to be absolutely massive in faculty numbers, far bigger than anything we have or are likely to have in Ireland. Otherwise what you are running is a higher level school.

      I don’t believe in or agree with the idea that the government or its agencies might choose for us who does what (which may be one of the ideas being played with by Hunt), but rather that institutions themselves, individually and collectively, might make some intelligent choices. Those choices clearly need to be informed by relevant and desirable interdisciplinary links, it could not just be a random exercise. Nor do I mean that every university might only have five departments.

      There is no point maintaining seven universities that, in global terms, will be at best mediocre. We need to pursue excellence. Not every university needs to do it exactly the same way.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    An alternative would be to build a reputation, not on the basis of selective subjects or themes but in terms of high quality teaching across a range of disciplines. Indeed, is is to some extent what many of the Liberal Arts colleges do in the US. It could be argued at research selectivity in the UK (and in some other countries) has led to an increasing focus on specific disciplines and a shift towards research reputation being the hallmark of a ‘great’ university rather than excellence in teaching (which requires active scholarship). It is of course ironic given that the bulk of most institutions’ income comes through this core, day to day activity of teaching thousands of students. As I’ve said before, every hour of every day, students are being taught in lectures, in labs, tutorials, etc, and each year thousands graduate and yet how little attention this seems to attract in comparison to grant chasing, patent registration and the like. Perhaps it is time for us to pursue a refoundation of the principles of a higher education and stop charging headlong up this, increasingly narrow, path.

  3. Iainmacl Says:

    Sorry typos again, courtesy of this little device


  4. I disagree fairly strongly with Kevin here. There is a strong argument for specialisation. In Ireland, we have a strong duplication of small departments of indifferent quality. For example, I did my undergraduate degree in Geology. There were, at the time, 4 departments of Geology in Ireland (all with an unhealthy fetish for the Caledonian Orogeny). So I learned Petroleum Geology from lecturer who had never seen a drilling rig, geophysics from one who had never worked a seismic survey station, and so forth. All were good lecturers who did their absolute utmost, but the department was just too small to support specialists with a deep knowledge of the breadth of topics they had to cover. The equipment we had was duplicated four times across the country and underutilised. More advanced gear was simply not available as the scale did not justify the cost. Waste Waste waste. What we needed was one decent sized department for the country. I don’t doubt the same is true for every other department and discipline.

    As for synergies and network effects, the point is partly true. A department that is too small will not have enough academics of quality in it to harvest any internal network effects. You get a group of staff toiling away alone or in pairs on their respective research interests, rather than larger coherent research groups, which can then pool resources and intellects.

    Some departments do need to fit together – very difficult to have a good research grade economics or physics department without access to good maths teaching – but not necessarily a maths research department. Nor is there any reason all the departments have to be in the same institution. Better by far, surely, to send your humanities or CompSci to France or Germany for a year to earn their foreign language minor in a fully immersive environment and transfer the credit home, rather than attempt to teach them more than the basics here.

    In the long run, the best students, who have a vocation for a specific discipline, will make their way to institutions with departments that have a strong reputation in the field. Second rate students who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, will go to second rate universities that don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.

  5. Al Says:

    Why not take this approach with second level also?
    What we are on about here is streaming isnt it?
    But at a resource level for third level.
    Worthwhile to consider a bigger picture?

  6. copernicus Says:

    “The Chronicle suggests that a university that is able to prioritise four or five programmes and put resources into them will attract more attention and will be able to achieve world class excellence. rsue a selective resourcing strategy”
    Harvard: medical, boiological sciences and management is a prime example. Nearer home RGIT was known for its strong Engineering- off-shore engineering and electrical engineering courses, there was no competition then from the U of Aberdeen. Now in RGU, the expansion has thinly spread the faculties and U of Aberdeen has by far the strongest Engineering department, besdies its good medical and biological sciences faculties.
    A VC friend said tom me, that the performance bonus for him and his team will not be coming from excellency in diciplines, but by showing how the university has expanded.

  7. copernicus Says:

    “A selective focus can of course mean a number of things: it can refer to a choice of disciplines, or to a selection of inter-disciplinary areas clustered in a thematic way, or to a focus on innovative teaching and research methodologies”

    In American universities, there is plnety of opportunities for inter-desciplinary work, but in so many British universities, departments erect firewalls around them and their programmes. I have long wondered about why RGU Engineering and Computing departments have shied away from joint degree programmes, and why Business School physically remote from the Engineering and Computing, is also remote programme-wise.


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