Bigger is better?

California Institute of Technology (CalTech) is currently the world’s first ranked University according to the THE World University Rankings. Given the current importance of league tables (despite their obvious shortcomings) it’s worth thinking about how CalTech managed to achieve this. A recent article in THE provides some clues (see here).

First, however, it’s worth looking at size. If one looks at the  Russell Group of Universities, there is clearly a correlation between size and league table position as shown below.

New Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation (2)One must of course bear in mind the principle of causality, i.e. does size breed excellence or does excellence breed size, but nonetheless the principle that the ‘big’ universities occupy prominent positions in the league tables generally holds, despite some notable outliers.

So back to CalTech – the surprise is that it is tiny compared with the majority of Universities, including those in the Russell Group. What is the secret of its success? Crucially, its small size means interdisciplinarity is an absolute must. In order to compete with places like MIT, which has some 7-8 times more academic staff in engineering and applied science, for example, it is necessary for CalTech to focus on areas that interact if they are to make a big impact. As one might imagine, social interaction between staff across multiple disciplines forms a significant part of this strategy. Another factor in Caltech’s success is careful attention to academic recruitment. Given the limited number of faculty members, there is no room for error – every academic hire must really count, so they go to extraordinary lengths when hiring staff and there is a full commitment to staff once they are in post.

So why don’t we generally employ the model of “small is beautiful” in academic institutions in the UK? In some senses we do – a number of the outliers in the figure above are high quality universities. But here’s the point – CalTech has enormous wealth at its disposal, with an endowment estimated at $1.8 billion . This means that significant levels of investment can be directed to leverage ‘excellence’ in almost any area of choice. In the UK, where endowment income is a tiny fraction of that seen in the US, if we want to be able to create financial headroom to leverage activity then we need to do it in a different way. One obvious mechanism is to be a larger institution – for a given surplus as a fraction of turnover, more money will be available in larger institutions.

Despite the size argument, there are a couple of lessons we could usefully learn from CalTech. First, the need for interdisciplinary working is clearly critical, and NU should hopefully be in good shape here given our plans for Science Central – the first university building will certainly include facilities for social interactions between staff from multiple disciplines from academia and industry. The second lesson we can perhaps learn is that if a field has been around for a while, CalTech disfavours doing it, because they should be inventing the next fields. I’m not suggesting that we will routinely be in a position to do this, but more thinking outside the box rather than incremental research must surely pay dividends.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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