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The role of Prestige – Consequences for UK university collaborations

A bid for prestige and a future agenda of maximise Universities as national/regional drivers, embracing multi-sectoral approaches to challenges – how is this paradox expressed in practice? A new report by the Leadership Foundation entitled The Role of Prestige in UK Universities: Vice Chancellors' Perspectives, explores tensions from contrasting demands calling universities to both address cost-savings through collaborative and sharing practice and simultaneously actively seek prestige in a framework that is competition based. In depth interviews with 20 heads of pre and post- 1992 higher education institutions in the UK, shed a candid light on the role of prestige and its relation to achieving collaborative practice between universities of differing esteem levels,  set in the competitive backdrop of globalization commanding recognition for ‘world class excellence’, and fuelled by instruments as league tables. The research draws on an agenda for achieving efficiency and effectiveness through sharing practices that surfaced in reviews published by the Efficiency and Modernisation Task Group - Universities UK, and spearheaded by Aberdeen University’s vice-chancellor Ian Diamond.   Interviews show how notions of prestige influence institutional behaviours, where pre-1992 institutions saw the concept as core to their conduct, contrasting those post-1992 regarding it as a variable component for only parts of their institutions. Teaching-led universities were shown to be most considerably disadvantaged by instruments as prestige-seeking league tables, measuring achievements not relevant to their missions and goals. Membership in the Russell Group, comprising a careful selection of top class UK universities, was found a highly effective vehicle for conveying and securing prestige, at times at the expense of those outside the circle. Although interviewees denied prestige to be the reason for interactions within the group, some leaders acknowledged the gained merits as not always deserved. Particularly prestige seems to strongly correlate with recruitment, retention and motivations of world-class academics, crucial to long-term success on a globally competitive market.  Evidence that personal ambitions for prestige could conflict with missions of the institution itself surfaced. Prestige also was a factor that influenced experiences of engagement with regional development, underlined by a strive to collaborate with the most prestigious players. This is a significant insight in correlation with current governmental policy and agendas that envision a triple helix of public sector, university and private sector working together on regional and local challenges.
The active seeking of prestige might be immensely productive in securing a top spot in the global rankings game, but it needs to be questioned how productive unspoken beliefs and values connected to esteem are in realising collective and political ambitions, such as those embedded in the Modernisation Agenda for Higher Education – that calls for a re-thinking of the the role of institutions as civic Universities, permeating traditional boundaries to foster interdisciplinary & multi-sectorial approaches, and becoming hubs of regional growth able to tie down global forces. The Role of Prestige in UK Universities: Vice Chancellors' Perspectives.