How smaller universities can punch above their weight

We may be small and young, but don’t underestimate our research, says Stephen Decent

January 22, 2016
David vs Goliath
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I hear a lot about “research power”, but is big always best? The Russell Group, which is made up of larger universities, certainly argues that the key to success in world university rankings is a concentration of research funding at the top.

But the research excellence framework (REF) has proved that smaller universities can flourish in this competitive environment. Lancaster University has now emerged as the only one of the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England to have had funding increased because of the quality and volume of its research.

The funding allocations give four times as much funding to research rated world-leading and provides accountability for public investment in research.

Recently Times Higher Education produced a list of the universities that performed best in winning research council grants. Loughborough University and Lancaster were first and second for their success rate. Despite its small size, Lancaster is also ranked 23rd in the UK for share of research council award value, above three Russell Group universities.

The REF ranked many of our disciplines ahead of our larger, more powerful peers in terms of world-leading research, impact and quality – including our Management School, the most research-intensive business school in the UK. These results are exciting.

Lancaster performed well, too, in the new REF category of “research environment”, and smaller universities can be a particularly attractive prospect especially for researchers who prize a vibrant and supportive research environment, want more opportunities for cross-disciplinary research and need excellent links with other research institutions worldwide. 

Perhaps because they are not being overwhelmed by huge numbers of students or by the hierarchical structures that come with being a large organisation, smaller universities are free to be more agile and more open to taking the odd risk. Being smaller, we are used to collaboration and reap the benefits from working in regional, national and international teams.

Lancaster achieved 36th position in THE’s current list of the world’s most international universities. This ranking recognises the extent of the university’s international student numbers, its percentage of international staff and the proportion of its research papers published with a co-author from at least one other country.

Research and teaching go hand in hand, and certainly our students tell us that they appreciate the overall experience we provide. I think this is also due partly to size. Things are more informal, and students have access to teachers who are active and enthusiastic researchers.

Smaller universities that also happen to be young shouldn’t view youth as a disadvantage, either. Lancaster is only 50. Younger research-intensive universities are free to focus research on niche and high-impact areas. Our new research institutes in data science, social futures and materials science reflect this, as well as several high-profile appointments, the most recent being renowned French graphic novelist and critic Benoît Peeters as visiting professor in graphic fiction and comic art, the first such appointment in the UK.

The smaller, young research-intensive universities among us now need to think much harder about what distinguishes us within the sector and celebrate that.

Stephen Decent is pro vice-chancellor for research at Lancaster University.

You can share your stories about the strengths of small universities using the hashtag #tinyversity.

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