Prestige in academia

Blackmore-140x180Prestige is a form of recognition, a representation of high esteem standing beyond reputation.  Recent research from the International Centre for University Policy Research (ICUPR) at Kings College London, funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, has been looking at the role of prestige in academic life, and the impact the notion has on the attitudes and behaviours of universities.  In this blog post, Professor Paul Blackmore at ICUPR tells us more about this research.

The efficiency and effectiveness of universities is a central concern of the UK government, reflected in two recent reports by the UUK Efficiency Group chaired by Sir Ian Diamond. The 2011 and 2015 Diamond reviews – set up to assess how universities demonstrate value for money – identified the need for collaboration from within and outside the sector to promote the sharing of services, resources and best practice to increase efficiency and effectiveness.

Prestige is a form of recognition, a representation of high esteem standing beyond reputation. The notion of prestige, and the desire to obtain it, could influence the attitude and behaviour of a university.  The result could be a shift in priorities that directly impacts on the university’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Through our research we wanted to understand how prestige in universities fits with the ambitions and recommendations of the Diamond review group.  Specifically, we wanted to find out whether an understanding of prestige could enhance; efficacy and effectiveness in Higher Education, the responsive and resistant relationships between coveting prestige and the aims of the Diamond group, and the different challenges faced by institutes before and after the passing of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 – a move that allowed 35 polytechnics to become universities.

Prestige or reputation?Gerlach-Flicke-Portrait-of-a-Nobleman

In extended individual interviews, 20 heads of UK Higher Education Institutes (HEI) offered their perceptions of prestige in their working lives, within their own career and in working beyond their institution.

It was found that the related concepts of prestige and reputation could be distinguished from each other, and could be used to explore organisational behaviour. Whilst prestige is defined as above, reputation is generally considered to be gained by satisfying external stakeholders rather than internal preferences.  A good reputation can be held by everyone, but prestige is a scarce good that can be held by only a few.

We found that the concept of prestige is seen as highly important in pre-1992 institutions, providing an insight into many organisational attitudes and behaviours. Many felt that the management of prestige was a significant feature of the work of most HEI heads. However, in post-1992 institutions it was more often felt that only some parts of the institution could aspire towards prestige and reputation was a more relevant aspiration.

wood_grain_texture_1_by_fantasystock-d3hab0oAgainst the grain

Prestige in academia takes time to acquire and is often associated with stability, placing it in tension with the requirements for rapid change communicated in the Diamond reviews.  Prestige also presented a challenge to conventional notions of efficiency and effectiveness. Much that is prestigious cannot be valued financially.  An expensive iconic building, for example, may have symbolic value but produce little income directly. A generous act such as making lectures available free on-line can be a form of “costly signalling”, displaying the quality of the institution.

Our research also noted that prestige is a strong driver for competitiveness – a concept in tension with the collaborative ideology that may achieve efficiency and that is encouraged in the Diamond Reviews. The reviews face in two directions: universities should be competitive but, to save public money, they should also collaborate. However, this call for collaboration is also at odds with the institution’s desire to be distinctive.

But what about collaborations beyond Higher Education?  Whilst the Diamond reviews push for more relationships with external stakeholders, academic tribalism is still a feature of modern academic life. HEIs driven by their perception of prestige can remain insular, valuing mono-disciplinary research more highly than the interdisciplinary work that is more likely to have an impact on real world problems.

Ineffective evaluation14599057094_8e82e0e482_b

Our research suggests that  the sharpening of competition and increasing measurement of quality can lead to the evaluation of institutions by measures that do not match their mission.  Several of the Heads of institutions that we spoke to admitted to being highly selective in the use of league tables. Some commented that they found staff to be discouraged by lack of success in global league tables that, in effect, were not an appropriate measure of their quality.


The report concludes that prestige can act as a powerful driver of a university’s behaviour, making conventional approaches to defining efficiency and effectiveness highly problematic.  Understanding how the relative perception of prestige differs across HEIs and the role this plays in an institution’s undertakings offers a powerful, nuanced way of understanding organisational behaviour.

Professor Paul Blackmore – International Centre for University Policy Research

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