Universities must value their students more than their reputation

In the competition to boost their reputations, are universities in danger of forgetting their students? asks Juan Manuel Mora

July 15, 2017
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The Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings showcase the “top 100 institutions” across the globe, based on their prestige. There’s little doubt that in today’s highly competitive, globalised economy, brand reputation management is a key concern to most businesses. And securing a place in recognised industry rankings has its obvious appeal.

But in the education sector, this raises a number of serious questions.

Reputation is tied to perceived quality: a brand’s capacity to fulfil expectations. But who determines those expectations? Governments? The media? The market?

For universities, most recognised rankings are predicated on a set of assets: an institution’s internationality, its diversity, the calibre of its research and, to some extent, the quality of its teaching. However, could the pursuit of these assets or attributes in the drive to build or consolidate reputation actually have negative consequences?

UK and US universities have always been an example to follow. They have mastered the art of delivering top-quality teaching and developing impactful research while remaining open and attractive to the world. However, in the quest to be ever more global, might they be losing sight of the importance of having local impact?

In the UK, for instance, the competition for more international students has indeed led to a rise in the number of foreign students – particularly from Asia – taking degrees at British universities. All of which is well and good, but what about UK students? Where are they going for their education? And if they are not going to university at all, then who is educating Britain’s next generation of leaders? And how will the UK fare in years to come as international economic competition intensifies?

World Reputation Rankings 2017: results announced

Moreover, where there is a growing proportion of Asian students in the UK, how can universities realistically meet this group’s expectations and its need for a diverse education – or, indeed, its exposure to British or European culture?

Could this very drive to be more international result in UK – or US – universities becoming less diverse? And, by extension, less interesting to overseas students?

Beyond the UK and the US, other potentially damaging fixations have also flourished. For instance, the obsession with the English language. European and Asian universities, in their quest to feature in international rankings and have their research acknowledged by the global academic community, have made English a necessity and a priority. But this, too, could be limiting the playing field. Where the PhD – and indeed, the teaching – pool is reduced to those with higher linguistic competence in English, the impact on quality could be critical.

Another malaise affecting the sector worldwide is the influence of local governments in universities. Assessment mechanisms such as the research excellence framework in the UK have drawn criticism for favouring institutions that already have greater resources. Universities comply with the framework, goes the argument, not to drive quality but to secure more resources. And this in turn leads to a resource-based tier system that is hard to break.

Elsewhere, the lack of public funding is challenging universities not only to fulfil research and teaching requirements as dictated by governments, but is also putting one of academia’s main principles under threat: scholarly freedom. Organisations that favour a political view or support a certain government could be faring better than those who challenge them.

And where are students in all of this?

In the competition for resources or rankings or reputation, aren’t we in danger of commoditising our students? If applications are at least in part contingent on quotas – the more international the better – isn’t there a possibility that we are assessing young people on their nationality and background at least as much, if not more than, their potential to grow and prosper?

I believe that universities have a singular raison d’être. That is to serve their students and to help them to become the best that they can be: as people, as professionals, as researchers and teachers themselves, and as members of their communities. In other words, universities should strive to empower students who, in turn, will help to better their society.

However, prioritising reputation as a response to market needs or to meet governments’ requirements, be it through rankings or some other mechanism, is in my view a failure to prioritise who really matter: students.

When it boils down to it, a university’s truest measure of reputation is its quality as perceived by students – its capacity to support students in the pursuit of their academic goals. This is what really counts.

Universities have an obligation to look at rankings, internationalisation and marketing in the right context: as measurement tools for improvement, for broadening services and markets, and, yes, for selling our products. But not at the expense of our real priority – our students.

Juan Manuel Mora is vice-president of communications at the University of Navarra.

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