Size matters in universities' international league tables

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Higher education mergers could put Scotland on the world stage, Ian Ritchie argues

For a small country, Scotland makes a disproportionate impact on the rest of the world, and one of our key areas of strength is undoubtedly our top universities.

We have really high-quality institutions that are responsible for our world-leading position in academic research. Per head of population, Scotland is at the very top of the world league table for published research papers - with 0.01 per cent of the world's population, we produce 1 per cent of the world's new knowledge - 100 times better than our "fair share".

In the past few years, the Scottish Funding Council has built on this excellent performance by encouraging the leading research groups in key fields, such as physics, chemistry and economics to group together and form super-departments comprising the best academics across several of the key Scottish universities.

As a result of these initiatives, the largest and most effective physics department for the whole of the UK is now the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance (SUPA). It has been able to appoint a world-class director, Ian Halliday, who used to head up the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and who is now the President of the European Science Foundation. He has also been able to attract key new physics research groups to relocate to Scotland.

But now that our leading universities are working together so well, it might be a very good time to have a fresh look at our structure of universities in Scotland. For a small country of 5 million people, we have rather a lot of institutions of higher education - 18 in all, 14 of which are independent universities, and they may be missing something of the effectiveness of scale.

For, make no mistake about it, in competing on the world stage, size does matter. The undisputed leading universities in the world today - Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge and Oxford - are roughly $2 billion (pound;1.02bn) businesses each. Scotland's largest university, Edinburgh, is less than half that size.

In the influential Shanghai league table of international universities, only Edinburgh is in the global top 100, at number 53. And it is beaten in this league by a number of other institutions from smaller European countries - Utrecht of the Netherlands, Copenhagen of Denmark, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Zurich. Glasgow, St Andrews and Dundee, prestigious though they may be, don't figure in the top 100. They are "bumped" down into the rest of the top 250.

But here's a funny thing. Whenever you speak to senior academics and officials of our leading universities - after a good dinner and a few glasses of wine - they will admit that it would make a lot of sense for several of our universities to merge.

If Edinburgh were to join with Heriot-Watt, it would catapult it to the top of the Russell Group of UK universities, up alongside the recently created Manchester University (which was the result of merger between the former University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology).

If Glasgow and Strathclyde were to join together, it would create a very substantial civic university that would undoubtedly figure in the Shanghai top 100. And there are many senior academics at the University of Dundee who would like to see it rejoin the University of St Andrews, from which it split in 1967.

Scotland would then have three genuinely internationally competitive universities, fit to compete on the world stage. Surely we deserve nothing less.

Ian Ritchie is an IT entrepreneur and was a member of the Scottish Funding Council 2002-07. We are grateful for permission to reproduce his article from Scottish Business Insider, where it first appeared.

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