Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Scale: Rightsizing Universities

What is the right size for a University? Why are they the size they are? What drives them to grow or shrink?

The question comes to mind from the recommendation in the recently released Irish National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (known on this isle as 'The Hunt Report'). The report recommends clustering, collaboration, consolidation and amalgamation of existing institutions to produce institutions of 'appropriate scale', and has accelerated a wave of merger talks between higher education institution's in Ireland.

My immediate reaction to this was very positive. Bigger is better, isn't it? Ireland, like many places, has had tendency for higher education institutions to spawn in every key marginal constituency. Some of our institutes of technology are tiny, and many of our Universities have departments with teaching staff in low single digits.

There are heaps reasons why bigger is better. Physical equipment, labs and so on, can be more fully utilised as students traipse through them in shifts, instead of expensive equipment sitting idle most days. More staff in a department, means you can afford to have real experts in each area, instead of people filling in to teach courses on topic where they might lack deep knowledge or real world experience. More postgraduates means more ambitious research projects can be undertaken. Few advances in the sciences are made by lone geniuses anymore, and even in the humanities, the intellectual spark between peers and rivals over morning coffee sharpens thinking and insight.

More cynically, a bigger institution has a bigger budget, which give more status to it's leaders. Double the student body and a lone administrator may appoint a minion or two, and become a manager. A Head of Department, her budget doubled, can afford an obsequious postdoc to do some of that tedious teaching stuff, freeing her to attend Important Meetings.

For students, a modern university is expected to have chess clubs, track teams, debating societies and so forth to provide students with a full breadth of potential experiences. The study body should be diverse, so that students can meet all manner of people and form the social networks they will draw on through their careers - people they will get drunk with, marry, and work for. You can't have those things with 100 students.

All that said, the size of the quantum of learning is, I think, the key, usually overlooked, driver. A Multi year degree is a big product, constructed of thousands of hours of teaching in a variety of disciplines. A fully gunned up University is expected to provide this product across a range if fields, from Classics to Nanotechnology. Think of them like a car manufacturer, or, better yet, an industrial combine like Siemens or Samsung. These combines make complex things, like Trains and Nuclear Power Stations, and they make a large variety of them, often with relatively few overlapping components. They have to be big to do that.

But as I've written before, the quantum of learning is changing. As we move into a modular world, with people picking up the learning they need piecemeal, as they go along, big institutions are having to learn to take their Trains and Nuclear Power stations apart to teach people who don't have time to spend four years hanging around campus, or who don't need a complete degree, at least not yet. They would be better to cherrypick modules, or at most certificate sized qualifications, from different places as their careers evolve. The size of the product is smaller, and perhaps so too should the institution delivering it.

Much of the 'economy of scale' argument, when examined in this light, falls down. The economies of scale are not at Institution level, but at departmental or, at most, school or faculty level. Whether we need two or twenty Universities in Ireland is perhaps beside the point - we only need one School of Classics.Why, for example, does Ireland need multiple French Departments. Could we not simply have one Institute of French, and attend there if our personal learning plan dictates a need for it, and, indeed, if physical presence is required (and, why indeed, should we not simply go to France and get it all from the horses mouth, but that's an argument for another day).

Many of the best respected higher education institution's in the world are specialists. Think of CalTech and MIT, Insead and the LSE. They forego a broad platform and large student numbers but still harvest economies of scale by being essentially an independent Uber Faculty of Science, Business or whatever. Many of these, granted, are postgraduate only institutions, and require a more general undergraduate degree for entry.

For another of you in Ireland may have enjoyed a visit to Corks Old English Market. It's an indoor market, full of specialist stalls of all kinds, which provide, at a competitive price, a range of foodstuffs of higher quality and variety than Tesco fare. You have to poke around a bit, and they don't deliver or take online orders, to be sure, but it's an overall richer, fuller experience. The traders benefit from a shared indoor space and a network effect from physical proximity, but operate as entirely independent businesses.

What I'm getting at here is that I think the issue of scale in Higher education institutions will be much less important in the 21st century than 20th century thinking might lead one to believe. I think the future is for a more network centric, less hierarchical institutions, where an education is assembled from a variety of ingredients, from a spectrum of smaller, more specialised providers and put together as needed, rather than coming in one large ready made packing from a conglomerate style University. These free standing entities will operate to a common standard of modularisation and accreditation, much as traders in a Farmers Market all use standard currencies, weights and measures. They will leverage network effects where it makes sense to do so, but they will stand alone, as specialists with deep expertise in their niche, not elements of a general, catch all college, trying to be all things to all people, a supermarket University in a boutique age.

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