22 SES 13 D, Access to and Innovation in Higher Education
International research has emphasized an increasingly hierarchical nature of the higher education systems (Brown, Lauder & Ashton 2011; Boden & Nedeva 2010; Brooks 2006; Reay, Davies, David & Ball 2001) with socially biased student populations in universities also in the egalitarian countries, like Finland (Nori 2011; Kivinen, Hedman & Kaipainen 2012; 2007). Increasing status hierarchies are driven by neo-liberal education policies, ‘excellence’ discourse and efforts to establish elitist tracks for selected students within mass higher education systems (Bloch et al. 2018; Marginson, 2016; Van Zanten, Ball & Darchy-Koechlin 2015). Institutional status hierarchies are known to be interrelated with reproduction of societal and occupational positions, and therefore it is important to address prejudices about which graduates are good recruits and which ones are not. The production of reputational status hierarchies is currently an under-researched topic and significant knowledge is missing about power struggles over the status associated with different kinds of degree programmes. Moreover, as many European countries, including Finland, has a binary higher education system, the argument related to increasing status hierarchies between institutions and disciplines needs to be adapted to address differences between traditional universities and their disciplinary-oriented degree programmes and newly established degree programmes in the non-university sector.
Reputation and prestige of different degree programmes are created through cultural practices: by creating common beliefs about the superiority of certain degrees and by maintaining those beliefs through mutual self-praise among relevantinterest groups (Brown 2001; Isopahkala-Bouret 2015). The allocation of status to a particular university degree can be based on, for example, real or imagined league tables, personal, regional and professional networks, performance of past graduates and prejudice against new institutions (Morley & Aynsley 2007). Therefore, research needs to focus on ‘grapevine knowledge’, i.e., personal and social knowledge based on affective responses or direct experiences as contrary to formal, abstract and fact-based information (Ball & Vincent 2006). Moreoevr, it is important to acknowledge that there are spatial and social (class, gender, etc.) barriers that limit the access of people to different information networks (Ball & Vincent 2006) and, therefore, different stakeholders perceive different ‘grapevine knowledge’ and form contested perceptions of the higher education arena.
The specific research question of this study is as follows: How do informal ‘grapevine knowledge’ on reputation and prestige position different Finnish higher education institutions'?
Media texts, policy documents, and graduate interviews were used as data in this study. Thematic, data-driven approach was used to analyse conflicts of interest related to reputation and prestige of different types of degree programmes. First, data was inductively coded and classified, and recurrent themes identified based on a content analysis. Second, discursive-narrative method was used to analyse ‘grapevine knowledge’ that works through story-telling, rumour and gossip (Ball & Vincent 2006). In discursive-narrative analysis, the analytical focus is on cultural practices that enable the production of narratives. Narratives not only express personal/shared experiences, but also reveal the social and cultural contexts that construct those experiences. Experiences are socially mediated; students and graduates are made to experience the status of their own degree programme in a certain way because of their discursive positioning.
Reputation and prestige were built around different singular status entities, such as selective student admission, cutting-edge research, development and innovation, close ties with employers and working life, international faculty and student body, and high-level employment of graduates. However, it was the academic excellence that had the highest power to define social order between institutions. Thus, to advance their status, non-university institutions were increasingly referring to similar narratives as traditional research universities (cf. an academic drift).
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