How valuable is ‘prestige’?

Just over 10 years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I hosted a dinner with a small number of executives of a leading US-based multinational company. We had just signed an agreement to undertake a joint research project. As we reflected over dinner on the discussions and negotiations that had produced the agreement, the senior executive of the company said that, as a matter of company policy, they would never seek to enter into any such arrangement with any of the American Ivy League universities. You would, he said, spend too much time negotiating with people who were so in awe of the prestige of their own institution that they could not entertain rational judgements about the value of their contribution to any such deal.

That assessment probably helped us at the time. But on the other hand, a recent article in the Guardian newspaper has suggested that in the higher education landscape prestige is everything. Paul Blackmore, who is Professor of Higher Education at King’s College London, looked at the impact of prestige as perceived by those who work in or lead institutions thought to enjoy it, and found that it has a major impact. One head of such a university is quoted as saying that prestige means that ‘you don’t have to explain yourself’.

Professor Blackmore himself seems to have bought this story, though he hints at some discomfort at its impact. Other recent studies have been more sceptical. An article last year in Investopedia pointed out that the empirical evidence now suggested that the prestige of a graduate’s university mattered rather less than the student’s performance while there – and that those assessing the value of someone’s degree were now statistically more likely not to be graduates of an institution guarding its ancient privileges.

Whatever the truth may be, I would suggest that those of us not leading Ivy League or Russell Group universities should not spend too much time worrying about this one way or another. This is, or should be, the age of excellence, not of aristocracy. We can and should respect traditional institutions that have excelled over the ages, but we should not believe that they are the only models for us to follow; and much less that they are necessarily our elders and betters. The future may well be ours.

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9 Comments on “How valuable is ‘prestige’?”

  1. paulmartin42 Says:

    The trouble these days is that those leading the ¨prestige”universities seem to be unable to maintain their reputation when dealing with various (admittedly complex) issues. For example: UCL & Professor Tim Hunt, Oxford and Rhodes must fall, Durham and students in the river (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/durham-responds-after-third-student-river-death/2018403.article). My generation were interested in going to such elite places but there´s none of that talk in the teen undergrads-to-be in my extended family. Luckily there are plenty of overseas students willing to pay, but for how long and will the govt be eventually asked to rescue some dinosaur institutions who get out competed by those overseas, just like the steel industry.

  2. James Fryar Says:

    When “cold fusion” was announced by the University of Utah, there was a race by institutions all over the world to attempt to replicate the results. In the weeks and months that followed, the scientific conclusion was mixed – a lot of researchers reported negative results, a lot reported positive results.

    The US Department of Energy (DOE) convened a panel to assess the work, which eventually concluded that the weight of evidence was against “cold fusion”. The result was no federal funding support for researchers investigating such topics.

    One of the key reasons for the DOE’s conclusion was that negative results had been reported by MIT. It was later discovered that the original experimental data had suggested a positive result, but that this had be normalised out by the time the final report was published. Eugene Mallove resigned in protest.

    And the point is – here you had a situation in which the ‘prestige’ of an institution swayed panel members and prevented, for 20 years, research funding into a particular area of study. Recently the DOE has changed its stance and supports limited funding for research into low temperature nuclear reactions.

    The “cold fusion” episode, I think, serves as a lesson in the dangers of ‘prestige’.

  3. Vincent Says:

    Such notions of prestige could be seen as an aspect of the divine rights of the upper middle class, protecting itself.

  4. cormac Says:

    James: I don’t think you give a good example.
    You state that “One of the key reasons for the DOE’s conclusion was that negative results had been reported by MIT”. Journalists may have claimed this, but the DOE stated at the time that their conclusion was based on a great number of negative results worldwide. I see no reason to doubt the DOE statement, having witnessed such null results at first hand.
    Current funding for low temp energy research is a different kettle of fish.

    • paulmartin42 Says:

      Null results do not mean #end, eg gravity waves were not observed til very recently. I am more likely to trust the prestige of Profs Pons & Fleischmann than some junior at MIT especially as having dealt with Palladium catalysis I appreciate the nuances of the tech.

    • James Fryar Says:

      Well I’ll agree to disagree. I think the fact that two of the premier institutions in the US and globally, Caltech and MIT, both reported no excess heat was a pretty powerful argument against cold fusion. If MIT had published their original data, and Caltech and MIT had reached conclusions that were diametrically opposed then I wonder if there might have been more funding …

      Incidentally the DoE’s conclusions were largely based, not on the excess heat argument, but on the failure of groups to detect the by-products of fusion reactions. Whatever was or wasn’t happening in the experiments, it almost certainly wasn’t fusion!

  5. cormac Says:

    “Incidentally the DoE’s conclusions were largely based, not on the excess heat argument, but on the failure of groups to detect the by-products of fusion reactions”.
    Precisely the point. As the DOE made clear at the time, their decision had nothing to do with the prestige of one institution vs another, and everything to do the aggregate of results in many institutions – i.e. the fact that experiments worldwide failed to show any trace of expected by-products of nuclear reactions
    (A very different sort of null result from gravity-wave experiments where the signal was always expected to be miniscule)

    • paulmartin42 Says:

      I am sure that no ¨trace of expected by-products of nuclear reactions¨ is equivalent to early day gravity wave detection. In both cases it can be posited that the measurement equipment is not good enough. As was the case for the Higgs Boson, radio waves as predicted by Clerk Maxwell etc etc.

      We will have to ¨agree to disagree” on this matter. And at least the sun shines in Aberdeen again

    • James Fryar Says:

      My point is that the failure to detect reaction products demonstrated that whatever was happening, it wasn’t a fusion reaction.

      However, the DoE report lists 26 institutions that showed no excess heat and 16 institutions that reported excess heat. The report then effectively dismisses much of the calorimetry data because it’s difficult to do, and concentrates on the reaction product studies.

      The fact that MIT was one of the institutions that reported both no reaction products and no excess heat was a very damaging conclusion in terms of the question as to whether some interesting physics, although not useful in terms of power generation, was happening.

      Had MIT shown no reaction products but confirmed excess heat, which was suggested in their original data, then maybe more funding would have been allocated to examine what, if any, interesting physics/chemistry was happening … we won’t ever know now of course.

      Concerning gravity waves, I’m with Cormac on this one. Even though your chances of detecting gravitational waves might be very low with equipment you know to have deficiencies and probably won’t work, your chances are exactly zero if you don’t try! The fact that they gave null results didn’t invalidate all the other proofs we had that general relativity works pretty well!

      Cold fusion wasn’t fusion. But something seemed to be generating heat, at least in some cases. Had the US not closed off all funding and they’d spent more money looking at the chemistry of heavily-deuterated systems, maybe we’d have better hydrogen fuel cells or storage systems now …


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