Looking beyond the labels

The academy’s focus on prestige makes sense, but odd-couple pairings can be as valuable as luxury ‘brands’

April 7, 2016
Price label on rack of designer clothes
Source: iStock

An occasional joy of talking to vice-chancellors about the mechanics of running a university is when they use concepts from unrelated fields to illustrate a dry point.

An example of this was Sir Steve Smith’s explanation, in an interview with Times Higher Education, of how universities with serious research ambitions choose potential partners, emphasising the importance of securing an impressive berth in the World University Rankings.

“It’s the concept of assortative mating: if you are seventh in the world, you don’t mate with number 497. So we have to be in that research grouping at the top,” the University of Exeter vice-chancellor explained.

The habit of assortative mating can be seen in both animals and humans, in the latter case extending across a diverse range of characteristics from height to economic and social standing. It may even explain why long-faced dog owners prefer basset hounds to pugs.

It’s relevant, too, to a study, published this week by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, in which 20 UK vice-chancellors are interviewed about the role of prestige in higher education, and the competing demands for efficiency (doing more with less) and status (all must be world-class).

This isn’t just about league tables compiled by external analysts; exercises such as the research excellence framework play just as significant a role in the prestige race (it’s no secret, for example, that one strategy in the REF 2014 was to target prestige over financial return).

The tension is clear enough: as the report’s author Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education at King’s College London, asks: “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?”

In another, rather different, take on the importance of prestige in higher education, we report this week on a study by Daniel Smith, a sociology lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University, looking at attitudes on UK campuses to the preppy fashion brand Jack Wills.

Smith suggests that the brand has become a “uniform” in many university towns, arguing that in a city such as Cambridge, where there is already a divide between the perceived “elite” at the University of Cambridge and students from more diverse backgrounds at Anglia Ruskin, this can have a deleterious effect on students who may already be at risk of feeling out of place.

These pressures are entirely understandable, and the pursuit of prestige can undoubtedly be a force for good that drives up performance if it’s channelled in the right way at an institutional level.

But there are also obvious risks, including the danger that a focus on status, which tends to rest on a few specific traits, could reduce vital diversity within university systems, which are strongest when they are both highly differentiated and integrated.

Assortative mating makes sense in many contexts, and research in particular will always be a prestige game. But wouldn’t it be a shame to live in a world in which other pairings, with different but complementary strengths, fell entirely out of fashion – if Jack Sprat and his wife headed down to Jack Wills to buy matching polo shirts?


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