In praise of the provinces

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Artwork by Mark Palfreyman.

Provincial universities and institutions have far more going for them than many people realise.

It’s often assumed that the ideal destination for a scientific career is a global city of some description such as New York, Boston, London, the Bay Area, Paris, Barcelona or Berlin (please excuse the Western bias). There’s no doubt that these metropolitan centres house a large number of stellar universities with global name recognition, but what about the institutions in the provinces?

The word ”provincial” is often used as a pejorative – unsophisticated, backwards, rural…but in these days of climate change and an increasing awareness of the importance of quality of life instead of mere intensity of work, might provincial institutions based in small towns actually be flourishing oases that champion a greener and perhaps even a more modern template for the academic life?

Indulge me if you will, and follow as I beckon. Let us sit on the grass in the shade and ask, why should one belong to these places?

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1. You’re closer to nature. That might sound like tree-hugging hippie idealism, but when restaurants are trumpeting their vegan options then you know that the tide has turned in favour of the green. Provincial institutions give a great connection to the outdoors – you see the changing of the seasons in the trees and the hills, you don’t have all that weight of concrete pressing down on you day long, the air is cleaner, and you get more natural light.

2. They’re great for families with young kids. When you’re in the provinces, it’s easier to get into the countryside, the towns are usually safer (especially in terms of lower traffic intensity), and they feel more open. Sure, there’s less culture than you get in a big city, but if you have young kids your social/cultural life is probably obliterated anyway.

3. There are fewer distractions. If you’ve ever interviewed at an institution in a provincial setting, you’ll almost certainly have had the quiet or subconscious realisation, “This feels like a place where I can WORK.” With fewer calls on your time and attention, you’re free to concentrate on your research/studies/teaching.

4. There’s space. The infrastructure in provincial institutions is usually a lot better than naive urbanites expect. A lot of metropolitan institutions are constrained in their xy axes – sometimes severely – by surrounding neighbourhoods, while provincial campuses can usually luxuriate in the space that’s afforded. That extends to the level of individual departments too – it means large labs, wide corridors, and plenty of room, instead of the sense that every square centimetre has to be co-opted, IKEA-style, to some useful purpose. Sure, you usually don’t get the address line Matthew Effect benefits that automatically come elsewhere, but reputation often lets such places get away with offering a poor package, simply because of the perceived gain in terms of professional prestige.

5. There’s less weight of expectation. This can obviously vary a lot from place to place, but there’s no denying that if you’ve landed a position at a prestigious institution then you’re going to be under increased pressure to perform, often by conforming to certain increasingly outdated conceptions of excellence (yeah, those journals, those metrics). Expectations are often more realistic if a place isn’t already a research powerhouse, and there’s more of a sense that good people have to retained because there isn’t necessarily a queue of people outside the door waiting to replace them.

6. They can be regional hotspots. Provincial institutions can be more selective with their research portfolios, and specialise in single topics that they do really well instead of trying to do everything and be good at everything across the board. Such an environment can lead to the creation of focused, lively research communities with a high level of mutual support.

7. They’re cheaper. The cost of accommodation is usually less in a more rural setting, the cost of living is usually less, the groceries cost less, childcare costs less, the lot.

8. Smaller town = shorter commute. Maybe you’ll end up cycling to work? That also makes it easier if you suddenly have to drop everything to collect kids from the kindergarten. The more compact nature of rural communities makes it much more convenient to get around.

9. Less culture doesn’t mean less history. It’s not uncommon for provincial universities to have a long history, often being places that the tide of history simply ebbed away from at some point. That can mean that there’s plenty to discover about the history and culture of the local area, which may be more readily expressed because it’s not covered in identikit chain franchises.

10. It’s easy to make a personal connection. In the same way that discovering a great band or a song before anyone else brings a special rush of pleasure, discovering and exploring the hidden treasures of a provincial institution can lead to a stronger bond forming than might be the case elsewhere. You’ll want to represent it and promote it, because it’ll feel like a local secret that you’re sharing.

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It’s worth noting too that there are also “provincial capitals” like Cambridge, Oxford, New Haven, or Dartmouth where small towns have ended up hosting elite institutions. While we’re not referring to these institutions directly, in a sense they represent the ultimate success of this kind of model – a rural bolthole becoming an educational powerhouse.

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Disclosure: TIR writer Brooke Morriswood is a junior group leader at the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at the University of Würzburg, nestling amongst the vineyards of Lower Franconia (Germany).

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