Recently I paid a visit to the GIANT innovation campus in the Alpine city of Grenoble. The city regards itself as Silicon Valley like, and with around 20% of the inhabitants of the city engaged in science or academia, it’s clearly punching its weight in terms of its innovative output.
Their success should be something of a surprise, at least according to a recent study by a consortium of researchers from The Alan Turing Institute, the University of Warwick and University of Birmingham.
The researchers argued that the best universities are those served by exceptional transport links, and especially international airports. It’s not an area that Grenoble really has in its corner. You see, the main airport in the city is the tiny Grenoble Isere, which mainly exists to serve the city during the ski season, with few flights during the summer. The other main air connection is in Lyon over 100km away.
The researchers compared the Academic Ranking of World Universities with the proximity of universities to global transportation hubs. The analysis suggests that universities not only tend to rank higher, but also rise up the rankings faster, when they’re well connected.
Indeed, the authors believe that the single strongest factor in the future success of a university is the number of shortest connectivity paths to international airports.
It’s an interesting finding, especially as the economic development of the region housing the university didn’t seem to play much of a role in its subsequent success.
It’s estimated that some 262 million students will be attending university by 2025, roughly double the figure currently doing so. As such, it will be an increasingly competitive marketplace as students shop around for the best place to pitch their intellectual tent.
So if international connectivity is so important, how can that explain the apparent success of Grenoble? Well, on visiting the Grenoble Ecole de Management, they have established strong links with a huge number of institutions throughout Europe, North America and Asia. This includes twelve international campuses and dozens more informal tie-ups.
So perhaps there are ways to mitigate the lack of a global transport hub. Nonetheless, the authors believe that their findings have important insights for both universities and policy makers.
“At the university level, it is possible to incentivise academics to connect nationally and internationally more. At the regional level, there is growing recognition that universities not only serve as strong economic sources, but are also as part of the intellectual culture and education system,” the authors say.