Too lightweight for the title

It's wrong to call 1,000-strong institutions 'universities', says Michael Farthing, and it's not just a matter of semantics

June 21, 2012

Does size matter when it comes to universities? The government has announced that it is to reduce the number of higher education students an institution must have before it can qualify for the title "university" from a minimum of 4,000 to 1,000. It argues that this "will widen access to university title for smaller, high-quality providers".

This raises the time-honoured question: what is a university? The academy's leaders would be derelict in their duty if the true role and meaning of the word was lost to a passing whim of the government of the day.

There should, of course, be scope for new and emerging institutions to deliver higher education courses, but we should resist moves to devalue the title of university through indiscriminate use. Not only would this let down the institutions that work hard to develop the research and teaching traditionally associated with such status but it could also damage the global reputation of UK higher education as a whole.

Although size is not everything, it does matter. Universities have always been about far more than defined programmes of study, but an educational institution with just 1,000 students would struggle to offer much more than this. What would this mean for students? Even with the most favourable staff-to-student ratio, it would be virtually impossible to sustain credible research activity that would lead, or even inform, teaching. The institution would, therefore, be effectively "teaching only".

In addition, the opportunity for interdisciplinary teaching and learning would be severely limited. In the UK's best research-intensive universities, with their comprehensive array of arts and humanities, social sciences, science, engineering and medicine, the opportunity for students to learn outside their defined programmes of study is substantial and increasingly attractive, and many in UK universities benefit from the chance to gain competence in one or more modern foreign languages as an add-on to their degrees. A small institution with a very limited portfolio could not aspire to offer such opportunities.

But perhaps most important of all is the fact that a small monotechnic would be unable to embrace the research agenda that in the UK has become inseparable from the concept of the university.

Many of the post-1992s that started life as predominantly teaching institutions now aspire to active research programmes within their portfolio of activities. Research is one of the markers of esteem for British universities, an important driver of league tables, a vital influence on student choice, and an indicator of international academic excellence.

While there are exceptions, in general, ranking in the research assessment exercise (and almost certainly in the research excellence framework in the future) is for many disciplines, if not the majority of them, size dependent. This is particularly true in the sciences and social sciences, but there is evidence that in many instances it is also the case in the arts and humanities. Size may not be everything, but for research it is an important determinant of excellence.

One might argue that even a university with 4,000 students is likely to struggle in today's competitive world.

I have no objection to the emergence of more small monotechnics in the higher education arena, but I do not believe they will add up to a significant competitive force. Some will be attractive to a relatively small number of mature learners who are seeking fast-track professional degrees, but the value of the university experience goes way beyond the acquisition of two-year professional qualifications. The student experience on offer should not be confused with that of established comprehensive universities, and thus the use of the name "university" could be misleading.

It is unreasonable to describe such institutions as universities. This is not just a matter of semantics. Surely they are simply colleges or schools delivering higher education teaching programmes? Nothing more, nothing less.

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