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.