Universities vie for the metric that cannot be measured: prestige

Universities vie for the metric that cannot be measured: prestige

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Universities are under pressure to be efficient and effective, and are constantly measured and compared on these qualities. But universities also generate prestige – and that makes itself apparent in more subtle ways…

Brideshead Revisited gave Oxford an entirely unneeded prestige boost. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Paul Blackmore is professor of higher education in the centre for university policy research ​at King’s College London

Universities are under pressure to be efficient and effective, and are constantly measured and compared on these qualities. But universities also generate prestige – and that makes itself apparent in more subtle ways.

Quite a lot of university activity is prestige-seeking and there can be a tension between activity that gains prestige for the institution and activity that is cost-effective and efficient.

Prestige differs from reputation in the following ways:
only a few can have prestige;
it is hard, often impossible, to measure;
it tends to be awarded by insiders (in this case academics);
it takes longer to gain and longer to lose than reputation.

For example, a Nobel prize confers prestige, while good graduate employment statistics generate reputation.

As part of my research for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, I interviewed 20 heads of UK higher education institutions to discuss the role of prestige in their work, their institutions, and in the sector beyond.

We found that institutions tend to fall into one of three categories:
Prestige-seeking (tended to be older, research-intensive universities)
Reputation-seeking (tended to be newer, teaching-led universities)
A combination

“I am very comfortable with the term [prestige]. It is articulated in a number of ways in my institution. It means you don’t have to explain yourself.”
Pre-92 head

“I am not trying even for excellence. I am trying for fairness and competence at a good price. We teach to the price, but this is not something that is easy to say in the UK. We have average students, and that is what they need.”
Post-92 head

Academic credibility matters

Most heads believe that academic credibility is still essential, although it does not have to be entirely current.

“My personal prestige was derived from success over 20 years. If someone questioned me I could say that this is what I have done over the last four big research assessments.
Pre-92 head

Institutions can contain tribalism

Effective management requires a balanced approach, seen in this description of a merged institution.

“There is distinct tribalism, and this is in many ways good. What you also need are shared values. Each of the colleges can and should have its distinctive mission.

“It is a difficult balance to strike, because you have to project the university and at the same time encourage the constituent parts to have their individual identity.”
Post-92 head

Research carries the most cachet

Research is always valued more highly than teaching, in both pre- and post-92 institutions. And research assessment can damage teaching staff morale.

“You have to work on this all the time. If you take your foot off at all, or disengage your mouth, academics will disappear back into the cupboards.”
Post-92 head

“I like to reassure staff that if they are not returned, it is not a mark of failure.”
Post-92 head

Everyone is obsessed with the Russell Group

There is both admiration for, and frustration with, the dominance of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities.

“The Russell Group has successfully stage-managed the position that it is seen as comprising the best universities. Some are and some aren’t, but by and large this is nonsense.

“However, parents increasingly say they want their child to go to one.”
Pre-92 head

League tables are crucial but challenging

League tables and rankings increase competitiveness and decrease the likelihood that institutions will collaborate.

Some league tables disadvantage teaching-led institutions by recording achievements that are not relevant to their institution’s mission.

Regional collaboration is difficultfor post-92 institutions

“We work very hard at selling ourselves to local councils and regional enterprise bodies. Our council would far rather work with a research-led institution in the area. It is purely a matter of prestige.”
Post-92 head

The interviews reveal a paradox. On the one hand, efficiency and effectiveness require collaboration between institutions and beyond them. On the other, increasing competition encourages the active pursuit of prestige in ways that may discourage cooperation and entrench perceived status differences.

Considering universities as prestige economies can be a powerful way of understanding organisational behaviour. This could be a fruitful field for further research, which may itself raise awareness and lead to the review of practice in institutions.

If the government wants universities to be more efficient and effective, it needs to understand human motivation better – and specifically how prestige works. What happens when the demand for global players in the world knowledge economy meets the need to support access to white working class boys and the reduction of drop-out rates for black students? What happens when the glittering prizes of research excellence are set alongside the need to teach students well?

The research report will be available from the Leadership Foundation’s website after a seminar on Tuesday 5 April, at King’s College London.

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