Where would you find the higher education elite?

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.

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5 Comments on “Where would you find the higher education elite?”

  1. I suspect elite universities may well have more intelligent students. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people believe a university is better, it will attract more applicants, drive up the entry requirements and the standard of entry and without any particular effort the standard of their output and their reputation with employers. If an employer seems impressed by your Oxford degree he/she is really impressed that you got in.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      “I suspect elite universities may well have more intelligent students”
      I cannot help but being dismayed at the ‘casual’ bias and prejudice of this statement. Intelligence, if we really wish to use such a controversial concept (I’d rather use talent instead) is NOT the prerogative of an ‘elite’ university (anyone who has set foot, albeit briefly, in a university would agree), or any other elite social environment for that matter. As educators this is exactly the self-fulfilling prophesy we need to reject to help create a more open society.

      • “Intelligence, if we really wish to use such a controversial concept (I’d rather use talent instead) is NOT the prerogative of an ‘elite’ university (anyone who has set foot, albeit briefly, in a university would agree)”. Well, I did spend five years in a well-regarded university and I’m not sure if I agree. However, that may be because I cannot quite understand the statement “Intelligence is not the prerogative of an elite university”.

  2. paulmartin42 Says:

    Can i propose the #RGU culture metric. In the same way that you can spot a (good) teacher when imho you go to the Garthdee campus the people have a recognisable air about them. Quite different from the vapours from those across the town at King’s or indeed in the middle of Aberdeen at Nescol.

    PS have worked at the latter two

  3. Vince Says:

    Isn’t saying elite university like saying Bank Bank. Isn’t adding ‘exclusive’, or ‘selective’ equally redundant. Wouldn’t you say elite, excluding and selecting sit on one side of the equation with University is on the other side, for all universities.

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