High rents ‘hold back uni­ver­si­ties in large cities’

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Uni­ver­si­ties in large cities cre­ate less highly cited re­search than in­sti­tu­tions else­where, pos­si­bly be­cause high rents and liv­ing costs put off the best staff and stu­dents.

This is one of sev­eral sur­pris­ing find­ings of an analysis that over­turns sev­eral com­monly held ideas about why some uni­ver­si­ties ex­cel at re­search.

One pop­u­lar no­tion is that in ma­jor cities with sev­eral uni­ver­si­ties – places such as Lon­don, Hong Kong, Bos­ton, New York or Paris – re­searchers find it easy to min­gle with other ex­perts in their field through for­mal col­lab­o­ra­tions and at so­cial gath­er­ings, spark­ing new ideas.

This net­work­ing ef­fect likely does ben­e­fit uni­ver­si­ties lo­cated in me­trop­o­lises, said Gas­ton Heimeriks, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in in­no­va­tion stud­ies at Utrecht Univer­sity and co-au­thor of the analysis, but it could be out­weighed by the ex­pense of liv­ing in these conur­ba­tions, where costs make it dif­fi­cult “to at­tract the best staff and stu­dents”.

The analysis, which looked at the re­search record of 750 uni­ver­si­ties between 2010 and 2013, found that uni­ver­si­ties in big­ger cities did not pro­duce more highly cited pa­pers than oth­ers – if any­thing, the num­ber of such pa­pers dipped very slightly as the pop­u­la­tion in­creased.

In dense ur­ban ar­eas, uni­ver­si­ties can face “more plan­ning con­straints and higher costs”, while “stu­dents and staff may be re­luc­tant to work in big cities be­cause the liv­ing costs are higher, whereas wages are of­ten de­ter­mined na­tion­ally”, the analysis sug­gests.

This tal­lies with pre­vi­ous re­search con­ducted by Pro­fes­sor Heimeriks that found that in the US, the very big­gest cities pro­duce fewer sci­en­tific pa­pers than might be ex­pected. “Very large cities are unattrac­tive lo­ca­tions for sci­en­tific re­search,” that work con­cluded, per­haps be­cause of high rental costs.

In re­cent years, uni­ver­si­ties in ex­pen­sive cities such as Cam­bridge, Lon­don, Hong Kong and San Fran­cisco have grap­pled with how to at­tract aca­demics to their pricey cities, and many have turned to pro-

vid­ing sub­sidised hous­ing.

The analysis also finds that tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties, which nor­mally con­cen­trate on the vo­ca­tional end of re­search, ac­tu­ally cre­ate about 7 per cent more highly cited pa­pers than tra­di­tional uni­ver­si­ties, when other vari­ables are held con­stant.

This sur­prised Pro­fes­sor Heimeriks, who sug­gested that it could be be­cause “a lot of new and ex­cit­ing sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ments are tak­ing place in fields that are tra­di­tion­ally done by tech­ni­cal uni­ver­si­ties”, such as in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, nan­otech­nol­ogy and en­ergy.

The analysis – “What drives univer­sity re­search per­for­mance? An analysis us­ing the CWTS Lei­den Rank­ing data”, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of In­for­met­rics – also finds that hardly any coun­tries boast uni­ver­si­ties that ex­cel at pro­duc­ing re­search that is si­mul­ta­ne­ously highly cited, has in­ter­na­tional coau­thor­ship, and is pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with industry.

At best, most coun­tries man­age to do well on two out of three of these met­rics (the UK, for ex­am­ple, cre­ates re­search that is highly cited and in­ter­na­tional but lacks industry col­lab­o­ra­tion).

“Given lim­ited re­sources and in­cen­tive struc­tures, there’s a trade­off between these ac­tiv­i­ties,” said Pro­fes­sor Heimeriks. Gov­ern­ments want their uni­ver­si­ties to be “five­legged sheep” that ex­cel at ev­ery­thing, he said, but the analysis sug­gests that this might not be pos­si­ble.

The one ex­cep­tion is Switzer­land, which per­forms very highly on all three mea­sures. “My guess is that Switzer­land has a very unique univer­sity struc­ture,” he ex­plained. “They have con­cen­trated all their re­search into a few uni­ver­si­ties,” and the coun­try has his­tor­i­cally very strong links to sur­round­ing coun­tries and a deep in­dus­trial base, he said.

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