Status anxiety ‘harms university cooperation’

Tensions between ‘tribes’ of differing prestige harms sector, says Leadership Foundation report

April 4, 2016
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Snobbish attitudes among some universities towards their less prestigious peers are stopping cooperation that could save institutions millions of pounds in efficiency savings, a study says.

Negative views of universities based on their perceived “lower prestige” might also be harming efforts to bring together universities, business and government to boost local economic growth, according to the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education report, titled The Role of Prestige in UK Universities: Vice-chancellors’ Perspectives, which draws on candid interviews with 20 unnamed university leaders from across the sector.

Several vice-chancellors explained how they had struggled to forge relationships with nearby higher education institutions given the vexed issue of working with more prestigious universities, said the report’s author Paul Blackmore, professor of higher education at King’s College London.

“Those from older universities would say that we are very inclusive and work together well, but the heads of newer universities complained that these institutions wouldn’t give them the time of day,” Professor Blackmore told Times Higher Education.

Tribes and territories

The existence of such status-driven “tribes and territories” made it difficult to implement some of the cost-sharing policies proposed in the two efficiency reviews led by Sir Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, Professor Blackmore said.

“The Diamond reviews are all about achieving efficiencies via effective collaboration, which needs institutions of different levels of esteem to work together,” he said. “It is asking everyone to be very nice to each other and cooperate, but the sector is now increasingly tribal,” he added.

For instance, the vice-chancellor of a large post-92 university in a major UK city told Professor Blackmore how efforts to work more closely with the city’s older university on urban regeneration had led to very little, he said.

“If you don’t consider each other to have equal status, you are not going to be honest with each other and collaborate effectively,” Professor Blackmore said.

He added that government policy envisaged a "triple helix" of the public sector, universities and industry working together in regions, but often potential collaborators "only want to work with the most prestigious players”.

Where collaboration did occur, there was often unhappiness that “prestigious universities” would work with high-status professional groups, while less prestigious institutions did less glamorous jobs, such as training.

Another negative influence of institutional prestige was that it had prevented older universities outside the Russell Group from forming an alliance since the demise of the 1994 Group in 2013, the report says.

There was “general agreement” among ex-1994 Group members that they had been deprived of a voice in policymaking in recent years, but no one was willing to enter an alternative alliance, Professor Blackmore said.

“Vice-chancellors recognised that it was in their interests to hang together, but would not do so for reasons of prestige,” he said.

Some leaders of Russell Group universities said that the prestige gained from membership was immense, although not always deserved given the disparities within the group, Professor Blackmore explained.

“They were saying they knew [the prestige gained] was smoke and mirrors, but why would they want to give that away?” he said.

However, the study also points out that university prestige can be a positive force that helps institutions to attract outstanding staff and students, draw in external funding and change local communities for the better.

“Prestige can do many wonderful and exciting things for individual universities, but it can mean the university system as a whole is neglected,” said Professor Blackmore.

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