Professor Paul Blackmore
International Centre for University Policy Research, King’s College
Final Report, April 2016
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Efficiency and effectiveness in higher education are a key priority for the sector. Efficiency is defined in the Diamond reports as a ‘fundamental operational priority to support [institutions’] core activities of teaching, research and knowledge exchange’1. At the same time they note that to be effective ‘a world-leading higher education system is dependent on attracting and retaining worldleading staff’2. This paper explores how these potentially competing demands present a paradox for institutions that are both addressing cost-saving through sharing and collaboration and at the same time actively seeking prestige through competition for talent and expertise. While efficiency is driven by financial concerns, focusing principally on value for money, the core activities of universities focus on social, cultural and symbolic capital, whose relationship with economic capital may be indirect and often unseen.
Prestige is understood to involve the generation, recognition and trading of forms of cultural, social, symbolic and economic capital, association with which provides advantage to an individual or to a group. This paper highlights a shift from a paradigm in which knowledge tends to be valued for its own sake, to one where its value is held more in terms of utility (evident, for example, through more explicit measurement of learning outcomes and the proliferation of league tables). It aims to investigate how a larger and more varied sector with more diverse access and participation, which is operating in a competitive global space, understands the role and meaning of prestige - through the perspectives of a range of leaders in UK institutions. In particular, the paper asks how an understanding of prestige (and the related aspects of group and individual motivation) can enhance the likelihood of increasing efficiency and effectiveness across the sector. In-depth interviews were undertaken with 20 heads of HEIs across the UK nations. The sample reflected a number of variations related to institution type; gender balance; and factors such as length of service, single- or multi-site, and urban and campus-based institutions.
The findings are framed by the distinction between ‘prestige’ and ‘reputation’ in the literature, and how the acquisition of one or the other may influence the character of an individual institution and contribute to tensions between its overall purpose and the individual agendas of its academic staff. It is suggested that prestige in a university tends to be academically driven, in the sense that those activities that produce outcomes which are valued by academics have the highest status. Reputation, by contrast, tends to be won by paying attention to what others beyond the institution want. The views of the leaders interviewed here suggest that institutions may be prestige-seeking or reputation-seeking, and that some institutions may be a mix of the two.
Interviewees discussed prestige in personal terms, for example in relation to their own career choices, but also in terms of people strategies such as motivating and rewarding staff, mediating between competing disciplinary and professional groups, and valuing achievement. At and beyond the institutional level, interviewees viewed these personal or organisational factors in relation to their long-term strategic vision, and to the influence of motivation and prestige on institutional branding and positioning, and securing beneficial alliances.
The interviews undertaken with leaders in pre-1992 institutions suggested that the concept of prestige is core to institutional behaviour, although there were some tensions between discipline-based priorities and institutional initiatives. In the post-1992 institutions, it was more common for those interviewed to believe that only parts of an institution could aspire to be prestigious, and that achievement of reputation was a more appropriate aim. Indeed, a strong message from a number of interviewees was that teaching-led institutions are considerably disadvantaged by the publicity attaching to league tables that record institutional achievements not relevant to their mission. The Research Excellence Framework was seen as a strong driver, but in some cases as having negative demotivating effects.
Interviewees noted tensions in how notions of prestige influence institutional behaviours around reorganisation, repositioning and merger. The Russell Group was often described as being a highly effective vehicle for conveying prestige, sometimes to the detriment of those not in the group. Pre-1992 institutions tended to have a strong interest in comparisons with other institutions, with projection of global prestige exemplified by the formation of strategically beneficial alliances. In addition prestige was a factor, although a variable one, in the experiences of engagement with regional development; for example there was a perception of a less than perfect "triple helix" relationship among university, industry and government at regional level.
It is clear that to be successful, strategies to implement efficiency and effectiveness require the willing and active cooperation of staff in the institution. The Diamond reports cite the value of recognition and reward, but there are interesting omissions about other, non-financial forms of motivation, of which prestige would be one. Interviewees pointed out that careful attention to the ‘soft’ aspects of people management can make a major difference to recruitment and retention, and can both attract desirable talent to an institution, and ensure that all members of the institution feel that they have a share in its achievements. There was at times evidence of a strain between the personal ambitions of individuals to achieve prestige, and the institution’s aims and mission.
In summary, the discussion of senior leaders’ views on prestige offers new and more nuanced understanding of perceived divisions between and within institutions and the impact on institutional behaviours. A better understanding of prestige and its effect on group and individual attitudes and motivation has the potential to surface often unspoken beliefs and values that influence organisational behaviours in higher education. Prestige-seeking may often sit uncomfortably with conventional endeavours to achieve value for money but it remains a strong explanatory driver in universities, and a significant factor in the actual and likely effects of current and future policies to achieve efficiency savings in the sector. This paper concludes with a series of national and institutional level questions for future consideration, to ensure that the beneficial effects of a concern for prestige will be felt and the ‘disbenefits’ minimised for the future.
1 Diamond (2015) p8
2 Diamond (2015) p3
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