University Rankings and The Perils of Prestige

Roger Brown's impressive essay in Times Higher Education regarding the quest for prestige in Higher Education is a must read. The fact that the four new universities admitted into UK's elite Russell Group paid £500,000 apiece for the privilege goes on to show how dysfunctional all of this has become, particularly because this only appears so normal.

Martin Trow, quoted by Dr Brown, may have said that Higher Education is not an outcome, but a process, but this does not seem to be the message of Higher Education anywhere in the world. Higher Education, instead of being seen as a progression to advanced level of education after school, is usually projected as a 'Higher' thing, a marker for power and prestige. A prestige-obsessed sector wastes precious resources in pursuit of prestige, as observed not just in UK, but in the US, where 'Harvard Envy' (as Andrew Rosen puts it) pushes up the costs and reduces faculty interaction in the unending quest of academic prestige by the institutions; in the developing countries, league tables and counter league tables are created, and university presidents spend more time obsessed with league table outcomes than student experience. 

Universities, on one hand, seek legitimacy by talking about their social mission - the only way to gain public subsidies in a democratic society. In practice, however, they play a different game of prestige, chocking social mobility and infinitely creating clubs with clubs. The problem with this is that when universities become too obsessed about their own credentials, they become inward-looking and detached from the rest of the world, a sure way to obsolence.

This is indeed a bigger problem in the developing countries than more matured economies. A new middle class is now being created and many countries in Asia and Africa are struggling with a groundswell of aspiration, but the only idea of Higher Education available to the policy-makers of these countries is this prestige-obsessed model of Higher Education, where keeping most people out is the objective rather than getting them in. Most countries are struggling to reconcile these two models, but poorly - and even there are complaints about universities in the miracle land of China ('Not educating the masses' - read this in The Economist). Bribing to get into elite technical schools have become common in many countries, a sure thing when poor institutional structure, selective institution and infinite demand meet.

I hear a lot of discussion about the necessity of creating a Chinese (or Indian, or Malaysian) model of Higher Education free from Western influences, but these efforts usually take the mistaken view of banning Western thought from the classroom (thus following the similar inward looking model of most Western classrooms). The point is indeed elsewhere: This obsession with prestige is one reason why the Western models of Higher Education may not be suitable for a country with a different socio-economic reality sitting on a groundswell of aspiration. If India, for example, has to build a Higher Education sector suitable for India, it needs to solely focus on social mobility above all else, creating space for innovation and entrepreneurial opportunities; the current obsession with creating name-brand institutions with ever-more-selective approaches is a mistake. But, indeed, neither the elite-educated policy makers, nor commentators and researchers in Higher Education (both in India and the West) can see beyond the paradigm of power and prestige. This is exactly why the opposite always gets done.


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