Pandemic ‘shifting the dynamics’ of university prestige

‘Peripheral’ institutions can more easily ‘play on the world stage’ but most prestigious universities may be more likely to survive and thrive, THE summit hears

September 2, 2020
shifting sands
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The pandemic has given rise to two conflicting trends that see “peripheral” universities gaining visibility on the world stage and prestigious institutions becoming stronger, but the jury is still out on which dynamic will ultimately prevail, sector leaders have claimed.

Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit that there was potential for the “worldwide embrace of virtual interaction to have a kind of levelling effect” on higher education institutions.

“It makes it easier for universities in so-called peripheral locations to play on the world stage, participate in global gatherings like this one, partner with great institutions around the world in joint research…[and] in terms of teaching and learning as well,” he said.

Professor Gertler added that if the mobility of international students continues to be constrained, it creates an “opportunity for institutions in these so-called peripheral countries to take advantage and serve the burgeoning local demand for higher education”.

Angela Owusu-Ansah, provost at Ashesi University in Ghana, offered evidence that this was happening, saying that the pandemic had provided an opportunity for her institution to recruit “some of the best professors” at McGill University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to teach part-time.

However, Professor Gertler said there was also a “winner-takes-all dynamic which is equally alive right now”.

“We can see a shake-out happening in many higher education systems where strong, financially stable and secure institutions are going to survive and probably thrive and where more vulnerable institutions are actually at risk and could go from being marginal in terms of their financial viability to being completely unviable,” he said.

“In a situation like that, the strong get stronger, there’s a flight to quality and those institutions with reputation, with strength, with all of the resources…will actually get stronger over time,” he said.

Professor Gertler said it was “too soon to make the call as to which of these two forces – the levelling force or the winner-takes-all dynamic – is going to prevail”.

Dilly Fung, pro-director of education at the London School of Economics, agreed that institutions such as her own with “wealth and power and status” have “found many opportunities to let their research flourish” and to be “fairly powerful on the scene” because they have the “economic wherewithal” and the world-leading researchers to prosper.

However, she said, there had been “more of a shift in the right direction” in terms of rebalancing power dynamics within the realm of education. She said this was because the status of institutions was often “literally to do with place”, such as real estate and buildings, and online environments “diminish the role of place”.

Katherine Fleming, provost at New York University, said the pandemic should prompt the sector to reconsider how it views universities that are not “on the radar”.

“A lot of them are doing phenomenal things, things our own institutions aren’t able to do precisely because we’re so busy tending to our reputations,” she said.

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