Gathering or distributing the university?
Here’s a topic, perhaps, to distract you as you recover from your Christmas dinner.
This last week the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) issued a recommendation to the Privy Council (to whom the task of deciding the matter is entrusted) that the UHI Millennium Institute should be awarded university status. In many ways UHI (which stands for ‘University of the Highlands and Island’) is a project rather than an institution, consisting of a partnership of a significant number of colleges and institutes spread around the West and North of Scotland. The extent of the distribution of its elements is visible in this map on UHI’s website. If the traditional model of a university is a single self-contained campus in one location, this is completely the opposite. If you thought that the existing model of the Dublin Institute of Technology was excessively distributed, think again.
Of course, in the case of DIT the Grangegorman project is based precisely on the assumption that a single location creates a more cohesive and vibrant educational institution. Elsewhere also, multi-campus universities (for example, De Montfort in England) have been consolidating their locations in order to have a single campus.
So what, if anything, should be the principle underlying all this? Is there a desirable model? The answer to that depends of course on how we view the future of higher education, and how we see university programmes developing. It is also connected with questions of economic development and regeneration, as towns and communities often argue that a university in their midst is necessary to attract investment and skills.
There doesn’t of course have to be ‘an answer’ to this – there can be several models and diversity may be desirable. But if there isn’t an answer, there needs to be an idea or a basis for assessment of what is right in each case. We need to have a sense of the economics of distributed universities, and of their capacity to connect subject areas with each other across distances. And we also need to have a proper view on what is reasonable in terms of a higher education presence in regional communities, and whether people from these communities can be offered programmes that don’t force them to leave (with the risk that they won’t return). We need to have a proper view of the geography of higher education.