Posted tagged ‘Caltech’

Small is ugly?

February 19, 2010

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.