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 which are responsible for our genuinely 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% of the world’s population, we produce 1% of the world’s new knowledge – 100 times better than our ‘fair share’.
In the last few years the Scottish Funding Council has built further 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 made up from the best academics across several of the key Scottish universities.
For example, as a result of these initiatives. the largest and most effective physics department for the whole of the UK is now SUPA – the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance. It has been able to appoint a genuinely 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, and has 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 – the Harvards, Stanfords, Cambridge and Oxfords are roughly $2bn businesses each. Scotland’s largest University, Edinburgh, is under half of 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 although they might 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 with senior academics and officials of our leading universities, after a good dinner and a few glasses of wine, they will admit to you that it would make a lot of sense for several of our Universities to merge.
If Edinburgh was to join with Heriot-Watt it would catapult it to the top of the Russell Group of UK Universities, up along the recently merged Manchester University (which was created from the former University of Manchester and UMIST). 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 that would like to see it rejoin with 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 was a member of the Scottish Funding Council from 2002-2007