Smaller universities often produce better research
A new study shows that smaller universities may produce research which is on a par with larger, more elite establishments, according to a paper published in the OECD journal Higher Education Management and Policy.
The paper explains that this is because once a research department exceeds a certain size – the ‘upper critical mass’ – research quality tends to saturate. The paper concludes that continued concentration of resources into the largest universities is not the best policy for academic research. Instead, the best way to amplify the overall strength of the sector is to boost smaller research groups.
The study, authored by Ralph Kenna from Coventry University and Bertrand Berche from the University of Nancy in France, helps explain a 2010 report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) which shows that the research impact of the 1994 Group matches that of most Russell Group universities.
The analysis carried out by Kenna and Berche uses data gathered from the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise to explore the relationship between research group size and the quality of output, and compare the performances of the 1994 Group of smaller research-focused universities to those of Russell Group’s larger institutions.
Kenna’s and Berche’s findings indicate that when research groups exceed a certain discipline-dependent size, their research becomes of similar quality. The fact that both the 1994 and Russell Groups’ research departments mostly exceed this size explains why they tend to produce research of comparable quality, despite the Russell Group being better resourced.
Dr Ralph Kenna, Deputy Director of the Applied Mathematics Research Centre at Coventry University, said: “The mathematical model turns the notion of critical mass – popular amongst managers and policy makers – on its head. The old idea of critical mass as a threshold size that a department must reach to produce high-quality research is unsupported in the scientific literature.
“The new concept of an upper limit, beyond which research quality saturates, is linked to a sociological mechanism known as the Ringelmann effect. This is a phenomenon whereby productivity increases with size, but the gain reduces with each new member added to a group.
“In academia, the Ringelmann effect is ascribed to coordination losses – not everyone can meaningfully interact with everyone else in large research departments. Thus those exceeding the upper critical mass tend to fragment and reach a plateau in the quality of their research output.”