Guest blogger: All universities are “excellent,” but some more than others: the rise of elite associations

Jelena Brankovic (Bielefeld University and Ghent University)

This guest entry is written by Jelena Brankovic. Jelena is a Research Associate at Bielefeld University (Germany) and a PhD Candidate at Ghent University (Belgium). She is also a HEEM master programme graduate. Currently she is working on university responses to status dynamics and competition in higher education. 

You can follow Jelena on Twitter: @jelena3121

Universities have been forming associations for more than a century now. Among some of the oldest examples of such ventures are, for instance, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in the US, established as early as in 1899, the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities (est. 1904), or the Association of Commonwealth Universities (1913). In principle, an association is established by two or more universities which have something in common, which could be either some specific characteristic, such as religious affiliation, ownership structure, or, perhaps, disciplinary focus; or, more often, a shared geographic, political, cultural or linguistic border. Or both. Think of examples such as the Association for European Life Science Universities, Association of Universities in Portuguese Speaking Countries, Japan Association of Private Universities and Colleges, or, for example, Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin-America.

Associations are many and their number has increased over time. They can be regional, national and international. In addition to the level or field in which they operate, we can also distinguish between, on the one hand, those which are there to represent interests of the university institution in a particular region, such as right to autonomy and well-known academic freedoms of its members, and, on the other, those which are tied by some additional characteristic or cause, such as, for instance, the already mentioned religious orientation. To distinguish, we could call the former generalist and the latter specialist.

Any of this is hardly news. However, in recent years a particular type of university associations seems to be gaining in popularity, both in national contexts and internationally. Unlike the most commonly found type of specialist associations which seek to differentiate in a more functional or horizontal fashion, this type is made up of vertically differentiating – or status-driven – university associations. These associations are characterised by high status of their members, claims to superiority in terms of their quality and – typically – exclusivity when it comes to membership. In other words, they are invite-only clubs of the small elite at the apex of the respective hierarchy of universities. Think of the Russell Group in the UK, Group of Eight in Australia, League of European Research Universities (LERU), Japanese RU11 and you get the picture.

Here comes the interesting part: although their member universities are among the oldest institutions in their respective countries and beyond, their decision to join forces under a shared umbrella is of relatively recent origin. Out of 17 such associations identified to be currently active, 15 have been established after 1991 and as many as 8 in the last decade. The most recent additions to this club of elite clubs are German U15, African Research Universities Alliance, The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, Aurora and CE7 – the 7 “respected” universities from Central and Eastern Europe. To make things more interesting, in 2013, several of these associations, led by the European LERU, decided to “step up their game” and work towards something called Global Council of Research-Intensive Universities.

One question a higher education researcher may ask here would be: what is it about the conditions under which universities nowadays operate that pushes them to form status-based associations? Although higher education fields have always been de facto hierarchical, associations formed explicitly to claim a status-based category are a relatively novel phenomenon. On the other hand, if we look at other empirical settings studied by scholars, such dynamics are not unheard of: high-status organisations tend to be more concerned with their actual status as such, especially when the status order is contested and uncertainty about “who is who” in terms of quality and reputation is growing. In circumstances of intensified competition, for instance, high-status organisations are more likely to join their forces in order to amplify their individual efforts at preserving their incumbent position. Certainly, rankings and ratings, but also national policies and initiatives, play a very important role in fueling competition for status and reputation. And while “excellence,” “world-class” and other widely diffused myths nowadays in fashion continue to inhabit mission statements of an ever growing number of universities worldwide, an expanding – yet still tiny – elite is busy working its way to make sure the rest don’t catch up.

Another question, perhaps more likely to be asked by governments, policy makers and universities themselves, would be: what could be the long-term (unintended) consequences of such (re-)positioning for both national and global higher education dynamics? Is this a phenomenon to be closely followed and responded to, or should we just disregard it as another passing fad?

One thing is, however, certain: fad or not, universities, but also policy makers, appear to be increasingly responsive to these developments. They respond to them by placing things like status and reputation on top of their agendas, by investing considerable resources in these associations (and in competition for status in general), or by privileging some universities over others because of their club membership. Again, not unheard of in other sectors. But, should this detail alone – that universities are in this respect becoming more like other organisations – reassure or alarm us? I would say it’s certainly not the former.