Is connectivity important for universities?

Just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses, universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge

The central paradox of the modern metropolis is that ‘proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across long distance has fallen’, writes Ed Glaeser in Triumph of the City. Proximity means people, businesses and universities are packed closely together, enabling new ideas to grow, knowledge to spread and innovation to flourish. Although video conferencing may be free, ideas spread better face-to-face. The growth of knowledge allows the city to triumph.

This thinking isn’t new. In 1890 Alfred Marshall wrote:

When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas.

However, this is not to say that connectivity isn’t important: connectivity is vital for cities.1 Dense, local knowledge economies need to be connected to global markets; they need to be, returning to Gleaser’s analysis, ‘conduits for knowledge’. For example, Bangalore is an ‘urban education hub’, a concentration of IT firms and thousands of skilled workers, and a conduit for knowledge through the co-location of local and international businesses. In a virtuous cycle, the proximity of skilled workers and knowledge firms in turn increases the city’s attractiveness to international businesses and its connectivity.

Connected universities

Higher education underpins these knowledge economies through research, education and training, and providing a space for innovation and creativity. But how important is it for universities themselves to be connected?

Universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it

Universities are ideally positioned to bridge local, national and international. With their local roots (and many universities were founded to serve their community) and their wider institutional, research and alumni networks, universities can help improve their locality, but also transcend it to help connect their locality to the wider world. And just as isolated cities will struggle to attract skilled workers and international businesses and find it difficult to develop a knowledge-based economy, those universities that aren’t connected will struggle to become conduits of knowledge.2

Bangalore2

Measuring connectivity

I was interested to read that the two largest falls in the 2016 Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems were Canada, down three places to ninth, and Bulgaria, down five places to 48th, due mainly to a ‘fall in ranking on connectivity’. The methodology defines connectivity as ‘the two-way flow of information between the higher education sector and the rest of society’. A closer look shows that Canada actually performed quite well on this measure (top ranked for connectivity are Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, the United Kingdom and Belgium) but Sweden and Hungary fell. There are six measures for connectivity:

  1. Proportion of international students in tertiary education, 2013.
  2. Proportion of articles co-authored with international collaborators, 2013.
  3. Number of open access full text files on the web, per head of population, July 2015.
  4. External links that university web domains receive from third parties, per head of population, 2015.
  5. Responses to question ‘Knowledge transfer is highly developed between companies and universities’, asked of business executives in the annual survey by IMD World Development Centre, Switzerland, 2015.
  6. Percentage of university research publications that are co-authored with industry researchers, 2011-13.

In a future post I will brainstorm a wider range of possible connectivity measures. For example, these measures don’t capture connections between city governments and universities. These don’t necessarily need to be international; good connectivity means smaller cities are well linked to their larger neighbours. UN Habitat’s 2016 World Cities Report notes that:

The only certainty about the next few decades is that… uncertainty and risk will become permanent features of society and governance, and this Report argues in favour of “a city that plans,” as opposed to a planned city. Consequently, institutions must also be endowed with the capacity to learn and adapt on a continuous basis. This requires pro-active investment in dynamic regional innovation systems, ideally buttressed by effective metropolitan authorities. If they are, as required, to promote resource-efficient built environments and underlying infrastructures, local governments must support regional innovation systems that connect “green” businesses, universities, think-tanks, social movements, social entrepreneurs and State-owned enterprises. Where these are in short supply locally, agreements can be made with larger urban centres in the country or in other parts of the world. (p.119)

Often universities are at the centre of knowledge economies, or innovation districts. Their exact location is important, yet so are their wider connections. Well-connected cities will often have well-connected universities at their core, and a well-connected university will support – and be supported by – a connected city.

For universities, as with cities, proximity does count, but so does connectivity.

Photo Credit: Bangalore Junctions by Scalino via Compfight cc


  1. And growing in importance. In a book about connected cities, Parag Khanna writes that ‘connectivity is destiny’. ‘Diplomacy among cities is the return of an ancient pattern. But it also dis-intermediates state structures. Cities building physical and institutional connectivity among each other, as well as growing demographic and economic power, is how they become the drivers of this new system’. (See also, ‘are interregional relations the new international relations?’
  2. I would stress that a connected university does not necessarily equal a research-intensive university. Many business-facing institutions or those focussed on opening opportunities to disadvantaged local communities excel in their mission because they are able to lever wider connections in their work. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s