Is bigger better for universities?

Student numbers will be uncapped from 2015. Chris Havergal examines arguments for and against expansion

November 27, 2014

Close up of whale's eye

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As a student I was well connected to people on my course and department, but the university as a whole can look like a very big, homogeneous unit

Ambitious expansion and mergers might sound like the preserve of business leaders – but, for academics and administrators, they are increasingly part of university life.

Having been constrained for so long by government quotas, the lifting of the cap on student numbers next year will offer British universities the opportunity to expand rapidly if they wish, and to compete more aggressively with other institutions for the brightest and the best – as well as for tuition fee income.

At the same time, some people predict that the new system may leave smaller institutions feeling more vulnerable, prompting them to seek security in a merger with a larger institution – as has happened with the expansion of University College London and in Wales at the behest of the Cardiff government.

But expansion is not without its pitfalls, and many of the UK’s smaller universities make a big play of their compact size in the way that they present themselves to prospective staff and students.

While there has been considerable research devoted to issues such as class size, the impact of the overall size of institutions has received less attention, even though it will increasingly be an area in which universities have room to manoeuvre. So what are the arguments for and against expansion? And for universities seeking to grow, what are the pitfalls to avoid?

One university leader who has experienced life on both sides of the size divide is Anthony Smith, UCL’s vice-provost for education and student affairs. He was principal and dean of the School of Pharmacy, University of London before its merger with UCL in 2012 – a controversial move that saw it go from being a specialist institution with little more than 1,000 students to becoming part of a large university with in excess of 28,000. UCL’s latest merger, with the Institute of Education, University of London, is due to be confirmed this week and will result in the biggest university in London, with 38,000 students.

For Smith, the union of UCL and the School of Pharmacy offered his school the financial security it needed to navigate the choppy economic climate, in partnership with a university that offered a “shared academic vision”.

“The key question was over sustainability,” says Smith. “The school is about big pharmaceutical science which needs pretty major equipment platforms on which to work in things like drug discovery and drug development and I was really concerned about, looking ahead, how sustainable it would be to do that as a very small stand-alone institution.”

There were much broader benefits to the merger, Smith argues, offering School of Pharmacy staff greater opportunities for collaboration, not just with fellow biochemists but across “new horizons”, while also allowing for the purchase of high-tech equipment, which represents better value because it can be used more often.

Becoming part of a larger institution also offered students access to a much wider social network and range of facilities, Smith says, and many of the UK’s biggest universities – often located within large cities – will claim to offer the most vibrant student experience.

Headcount heavyweights

Harry Copson, president of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, believes that a large undergraduate community allows for the provision of more extracurricular activities and creates a more culturally diverse experience. “I don’t think there are many people here who could say there’s no one in the university who has similar interests to them,” he says. “It’s just a matter of finding them.”

But how easy is it? Sebastiaan Debrouwere, president of King’s College London Students’ Union, acknowledges that size can have its drawbacks. “As a student I was really well connected to the people on my course and department, but the university as a whole can sometimes look like a very big, homogeneous unit because there are so many students,” he says. “If you’re talking about a university in the centre of an international city as opposed to a campus university in a smaller town, that is magnified.”

These issues could become more pronounced if King’s were to expand, adds Debrouwere, particularly since many students commute to the campus from accommodation around the capital.

As well as the temptation of banking more student fees, research funding sometimes appears to bang the drum for “bigger is better”: some money is set aside for institutions that can pull together significant projects. The UK Research Partnership Investment Fund, for example, administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, invites submissions from institutions looking to bid for at least £10 million, providing that they can obtain at least twice that amount from private sources.

Likewise, in 2012, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council restricted applications for its Core Capability for Chemistry Research scheme to universities that had attracted more than £10 million of support from the organisation in the preceding five years. All of this represents a challenge to smaller departments and universities.

Expansion can also be driven more directly, through government intervention. The mergers of recent years in Wales were prompted by ministers’ fears that the country’s smaller institutions were not resilient enough to weather the financial storm, with what is now the University of Wales Trinity Saint David encompassing the former University of Wales, Lampeter, Trinity University College in Carmarthen, and Swansea Metropolitan University.

It is certainly true that small and specialist providers can bear the brunt of sudden policy changes. A well-known example is Birkbeck, University of London, London’s specialist provider of evening university study, which saw its student numbers tumble following cuts in the teaching grant allocated to students studying for qualifications equivalent to, or at a lower level than, those that they already hold – the so-called ELQ rule. Since 38 per cent of Birkbeck’s teaching grant fell into this category, it was forced to radically reinvent its course provision.

But while many staff benefit from the research and collaboration opportunities that a large institution offers, others echo Debrouwere and point out that large institutions can feel impersonal and confusing.

Sian Moore, professor of work and employment relations at the University of the West of England, says size has to be matched by investment – and argues that this is not always the case.

“We have seen an obsession by universities with marketing, glitzy buildings and the growth of bureaucracy and management, at the expense of the staff-to-student ratio,” says Moore, speaking in a personal capacity. “There has to be a focus on investing in high-quality, research-active teaching staff, so you don’t get huge numbers in lectures and seminars, which makes it harder for students to form relationships with members of staff.”

Whale's tail while swimming in ocean

Are these issues reflected in the annual National Student Survey? Medium-sized institutions do tend to fare better than the larger research-intensive universities.

In the 2014 survey, the top spots were taken by small, specialist institutions – the Courtauld Institute of Art came first followed by Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Behind them were a number of medium-sized institutions, led by the University of Bath (15,060 students in 2012-13), Keele University (10,230) and the University of St Andrews (9,465).

Of the 25 institutions that had an overall satisfaction score of 90 per cent or more, only six – including The Open University – had more than 20,000 students. Excluding The Open University, none of the UK’s 10 biggest universities (in terms of student numbers) scored 90 per cent or higher on this measure.

Universities considering expansion would do well to take heed of the experience of the University of Manchester, now the UK’s largest university (excluding The Open University) with 38,430 students, which faced a revolt from undergraduates in the wake of the merger between the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004.

Students used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain data on declining contact hours – and discovered that social science students had half as many contact hours in 2008 as they had had two decades previously. The university drew up plans to reduce the size of seminar groups and to increase contact hours by recruiting more teaching fellows or making increased use of graduate teaching assistants. In 2014, Manchester scored 85 per cent overall in the NSS.

One institution that has been very aware of the risks around expansion is the University of Exeter, which grew from 13,150 to 18,865 students in the decade to 2012-13.

Janice Kay, Exeter’s provost and senior deputy vice-chancellor, says the growth aimed to improve quality, not simply add quantity. Increasing the size of the student body allowed expansion of the university’s science strengths to match its traditional specialisms in the humanities, while creating a more vibrant academic community, she argues.

Exeter has settled on what it believes is its optimal size across three campuses – 22,000 students – which allows for some further expansion from current levels. This figure, described not as a target but as the ceiling of what the university would be “comfortable” with, was named after consideration of student survey results and an examination of differently sized institutions from around the world.

“Our view of the National Student Survey is that very large institutions find it more difficult than others to maintain a quality student experience and that may have to do with creating a sense of identity and a sense of belonging,” says Kay. “For us, we think a comfortable place to be is around 22,000 students.”

King-sized spending

Kay says that she is particularly proud that Exeter managed to improve its staff-to-student ratio during its expansion. While she concedes that growth did not come cheaply, with major investments being made in buildings such as a new student centre and sports facilities, she argues that the planned nature of the growth meant that this could be carefully managed.

“We felt very strongly that we wanted to preserve the spirit of our campuses and their beauty,” adds Kay. “What they give to the student experience is very important.”

Research-focused, compact, campus-based institutions of the type that once made up the 1994 Group have often made these characteristics central to their marketing strategies.

The first page of the University of York’s undergraduate prospectus, for example, highlights its “attractive landscaped campus”, which is “compact, easy to get around, and has a safe, friendly atmosphere”.

Alex Bols, who was executive director of the 1994 Group before its disbanding last year, says that large, well-known institutions may top the wish list of many prospective students – but once they visit campus universities they are often won over by the benefits of the latter.

Bols, who is now deputy chief executive of the GuildHE group of smaller, specialist universities, says he is not surprised that some larger institutions struggle in student satisfaction rankings because smaller universities are able to offer a “sense of academic community”, which allows undergraduates to get to know fellow students and staff much better.

“If it feels like an enormous, faceless institution, of course you are going to feel more disconnected,” says Bols. “I feel that if you have a more personalised experience, you are going to appreciate it and value it more.”

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are intent on controlling their undergraduate numbers to protect their tutorial system and, when it comes to elite institutions, there is clearly a reason why members of the Ivy League have not capitalised on their status and expanded. All but two have between 4,200 and 8,300 undergraduates, with Cornell University, the largest, having 14,393 and 5,023 postgraduates – which would still be considered relatively modest in the UK.

In the US, liberal arts colleges, many of which have 2,000 students or fewer, often lay claim to providing the best undergraduate experience.

At one of the leading liberal arts institutions, Swarthmore College, all 1,500 undergraduates can fit into the dining room at a single time, boasts provost Thomas Stephenson. Classes typically have between 10 and 15 students and take place on a 425-acre campus. He believes the intimate environment encourages staff to act as role models and engage their undergraduates in research.

“We have an academic enterprise that really focuses on close interactions between students and faculty, which is really not possible at a much larger institution,” says Stephenson.

Close up of whale's face

Arizona State University has 83,000 students, with some advisers being replaced with an electronic system that monitors students’ ability in class

He does not pretend the liberal arts model is perfect, with the small size of the institution limiting the breadth of teaching and research, but he is unapologetic – emphasising the learning of critical thinking and communication skills over the covering of every possible topic.

The contrast in university size could not be more marked than in the US. Away from Swarthmore, there are many universities that dwarf the UK’s biggest institutions.

One of the largest, Arizona State University, has 83,000 students on its roll, all but 10,000 of whom are undergraduates.

The university’s growth has been rapid, doubling the number of graduates and quadrupling the amount of funded research carried out annually over the course of a decade, while the faculty has stayed the same size and the overall number of staff has fallen.

The methods of Michael Crow, the ASU president, might not go down well in the UK – on his watch, traditional departments have been merged to form unfamiliar groupings such as the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and 1,800 people have lost their jobs.

Technology has played a key role, with some student advisers being replaced by an electronic system that monitors students’ ability in class and then suggests their best academic route. This has allowed ASU to hire fewer advisers, but at a higher level, claims Crow.

Barry Bozeman, ASU’s centennial professor of technology policy and public management, says that the university draws strength from its size.

“After you reach a certain threshold, you get productivity gains by size,” he argues. “For some reason, nobody in universities seems to have discovered that, even though almost everybody in business would know that instinctively, and they also understand that there are threshold effects in the relationship between size and innovation. I’ve never heard anyone who’s leading a university say that.”

While the university’s overall size might seem daunting to people familiar with British institutions, this is offset by the delivery of many services at college or departmental level. The approach appears to work – surveys commissioned by ASU indicate student satisfaction has improved during Crow’s reign.

For universities considering expansion, this maintenance of smaller substructures within the institution may be a key to success.

Staff armies

UCL’s expansion has been marked by the maintenance of the distinct identities of the organisations it has absorbed, such as the School of Pharmacy and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies – and this will continue when the IoE, University of London formally joins on 2 December.

Staff and students have dual loyalty, for UCL and for their department, but it is the lower, closer level of community that helps “glue it together”, argues Smith.

These devolved identities are also important at Sheffield Hallam University, the UK’s fourth-biggest university with 34,720 students, according to David Wood, a principal lecturer in the department of nursing and midwifery.

In the department, which has more than 2,000 students, learners are divided into tutor groups of about 15 students, with an academic who provides support in several annual sessions over a three-year BSc course.

Wood says the groups help to “foster a feeling of belonging within a large department, in a large faculty, in a large university”.

“They enable students to understand that their experience matters and to feel part of a smaller group, and staff to feel supported and valued within a large organisation,” he adds.

In a sector that is increasingly market-driven, demand will be a key factor in any expansion, of course. Demographic change means that the number of 18-year-olds in the UK population is falling, and the long-running rise in A-level grades has ground to a halt. These factors could potentially put a brake on expansion (without contemplating other future possibilities, such as the impact of the country withdrawing from the European Union, which could affect the flow of students from the EU).

Whatever happens, Bols urges against a race to expand, arguing that the diversity in scale and style of the UK’s higher education sector is one of its strengths.

While it is easy for universities to be seduced by increased income and wider reach, he argues that the universities that will be doing the best in 10 years will be those that have a “clear idea” about how many students they want and how they want to position themselves.

“Just expanding without thinking of the impact it will have on the culture and feel of the institution creates a very real risk,” he says. “If it goes too far, a university can almost lose its soul.”

Whale swimming with calf

Little v large: choice, crowds and compromise

“It can be quite overwhelming to be confronted by so many people,” acknowledges Fiona Metcalfe, the activities officer at Leeds University Union.

But on the whole, Metcalfe argues that being part of a big student community, in a city with a large undergraduate population, offers increased choice for learners.

“It means there’s a wider choice of halls of residence with more variety, which is really good,” she says. “In terms of clubs and societies, we have got one of the biggest selections in the country, with over 320 of them, and that’s largely down to the number of students.”

Yael Shafritz, the president of Sheffield Students’ Union, argues that having all the facilities in one area and running a vibrant union ensures that there is a strong identity, however large the student community.

“There are always issues with really large universities where it’s harder for you to hear individual concerns,” adds Shafritz. “It can be hard for things to be fed upwards in a big institution so change can be difficult. On the other hand, it means you can get a really powerful voice when you do join together.”

Jodie Hope, the president of the University of Chichester Students’ Union, concedes that the student experience at her institution is very different from that at a bigger university – but argues that life in a huge city or community is not for everyone.

“Students know that the nightlife is not the same as at universities like Portsmouth down the road but it works because it means it’s a safer environment for students that wish to go out and enjoy the nightlife,” says Hope. “It’s often at our bars, with people they know.”

Being at one of the UK’s smaller universities does have its advantages, agrees Ahmed Hassan, chairperson of Aston Students’ Union. “Because of the size of the university, it means that we are all very closely knit and know each other and it creates a social, family atmosphere,” says Hassan. “You say hello to a lot of people as you walk around campus, and lecturers recognise you, so it creates a personal feel that isn’t there in bigger universities.”

Chris Havergal

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