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.

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