The notion that large universities are better, or at least more sustainable, is remarkably durable. It has been at the heart of the debate on Irish higher education reform, and has now been called into action by the Director-Gebneral of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). Speaking at a fringe meeting at the UK Labour Party conference, Mr John Cridland suggested that ‘smaller UK universities at the margins may risk closure.’ According to the Guardian newspaper (which organised the event), he added:
‘We are probably going to move into a period of consolidation – there are too many universities for our capacity to cope with them being separate.’
As we know, this is not a unique view, but it manages to stay in circulation without the burden of too much evidence in its support. The university rated the world’s number one in the Times Higher global rankings, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), is also a rather small institution, with fewer than 3,000 students; it most certainly is neither ‘at the margins’ nor at risk of closing. By way of contrast, some of the largest universities in terms of student numbers are quite low in the league tables.
The sustainability of a university has very little to do with size. It is however connected with quality, clarity of mission, robustness and adequacy of resources, and an ability to engage strongly with students and other stakeholders. It is of course right, as Mr Cridland also suggested, that universities collaborate and engage with each other, but this is so regardless of size.
The debate about the future of higher education is an important one. It should not however be obscured by the introduction of arguments that have no real evidence base.