How small can a university be?

Size isn’t everything but does it matter for a university?

I picked up an interesting blog post from Andy Westwood, CEO of GuildHE, in which he argues that the reduction in the required number of students for the award of university title is a good decision by government and will deliver another “level playing field” (see earlier Imperfect University post on that topic) in higher education:

In last June’s Higher Education white paper (yes it really was that long ago), BIS declared their intention to reduce the qualifying threshold for university title from 4,000 to 1,000 students. All the other qualifying criteria – notably the need to hold degree awarding powers – would remain intact. Those institutions that might benefit from such a change made headlines when the precise proposals and criteria were published in the subsequent technical consultation in August 2011.

They include the Royal Agricultural College and Harper Adams – university colleges in the land based sector, Falmouth, Norwich and Bournemouth University College of the Arts and also Newman, Bishop Grosseteste, St Mary’s and Marjon university colleges in Birmingham, Lincoln, Twickenham and Plymouth. In all of these places and in the specific sectors they serve, these are familiar institutions that are both well-known and highly valued. Collectively they have been around for over 1,000 years – with most founded during the 19th century. ‘New’ universities they might become but ‘new’ institutions they most certainly are not.

Westwood suggests there are already some universities with fewer than 4,000 students, including Buckingham, but I’m not sure there are others with such modest enrolments. He goes on to argue that the new universities in the 1960s all started with small numbers and took some time to grow to have more than 4,000 students. But they were brand new and expansion was slow and steady in era of elite rather than mass participation so this is hardly a surprise and really not a compelling argument for changing university criteria nearly half a century on.

So as in many other arguments this is about a level playing field. Quality, reputation and brand are increasingly vital to institutions and to the UK as a whole and it’s in no one’s interest to let any slip. But to continue to do so we should recognise and value excellence and enable diversity and specialism to flourish. That is precisely what ministers are considering and it’s in everyone’s interest.

Of course size isn’t everything but there is something about a university which does carry a sense of range of subjects and a critical mass of students and staff. Any minimum number of students is bound to be arbitary but 4,000 seems a more realistic baseline. The logical conclusion of the level playing field argument here is that there should be no minimum number and any body which has taught degree awarding powers and is

…able to demonstrate that it has regard to the principles of good governance as are relevant to its sector

(which is the other criterion) can be awarded the university title. I’m not certain that this is a good thing. This is not to say that that these institutions aren’t good in their own way. But not every college can be a university – if every institution has the title then it inevitably becomes less meaningful. And that’s not good for anyone.

3 thoughts on “How small can a university be?

  1. Thanks very much for reading and replying to my blog. This was the only substantive announcement in the Government’s response to the white paper last week and the main area of media interest. As you mention, I argue that size is less relevant than quality and that small, specialist universities thrive around the world – most notably Postech in S.Korea which came top in the recent THE tables for institutions under 50 years old. But as we saw in the UK, there have been many universities that have existed with less than 4,000 students for many years with little intention for growth or merger. What was good then is just as good now. The world is embracing and expanding higher education as an economic and social good and more should mean better, not worse.

    Ultimately though I think the real argument is about diversity and the need to incentivise high quality specialist institutions in a broad sector. I think that’s a far better aim and more practical than requiring risky growth in subjects and numbers in order to get across an arbitrary threshold. That is more likely to threaten meaning or brand especially in a sector constrained on numbers.

  2. Historically, size was less important. By the time of the Robbins Report only 11 universities were larger than 4,000 students, with Bristol, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Nottingham, St Andrews, Durham, Exeter, Hull, Leicester, Reading, Southampton and Keele having under 4000 FT students (Autumn 1962 – London & Wales counted as single universities).

    I have always understood the number rule as a proxy for a certain critical mass that would provide sufficient stability. The 1000 rule is actually 750 HE students. If those are FT UG students, say, that’s an intake of only 250/300 students. In contemporary terms, that seems a bit small.

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