Esteem-powered academy

In a world where good names are priceless, UK universities have built up plenty of credit in the reputation bank

November 21, 2013

Never mind “education, education, education” (© Tony Blair, 1996): it sometimes seems as though the triplet with the most currency in higher education is “reputation, reputation, reputation” (© Othello, 1603).

It is tempting to reach for further (slightly ropy) parallels between the two, with their tales of hubris and venomous advisers, but it is probably best to leave it there.

The point is that universities are focusing on reputation more intently than ever in an age when competition is king. For journalists covering higher education, barely a week goes by without a call from a PR firm conducting a “reputation audit” for a university, while the ever-growing influence of rankings and the focus on “consumer power” highlight the same trend.

As for more general airbrushing, one wonders how healthy - or necessary - it is to worry too much about sanitising what is said

This week we report on yet another example: the selective editing of Wikipedia profiles.

That some in university marketing departments spend time on such things is hardly surprising: the web is the front line when it comes to forming and controlling opinion, and factual inaccuracies need correcting. But as for more general airbrushing, one wonders how healthy – or necessary – it is to worry too much about sanitising what is said about such complex institutions.

Taking a sector-wide view, it is clear that the status of our universities is almost unparalleled, nationally and internationally.

Banks, hospitals, politicians and journalists have all gone through torrid times that have left their collective reputations in tatters. Universities, by contrast, remain places where students want to spend their time and money, and others still want to work with them (it is hard to think of an organisation that would not improve its standing by partnering with a university in some way).

Having said that, there are threats: not the local concerns of press officers, perhaps, but wider problems surrounding the viability of the funding regime, the impact of visa policy, the problems facing postgraduates and the potential distortions caused by market forces.

Reputation is a universal concern, of course, and in our opinion pages this week we look outside the UK at the way in which academics, students and others in Romania have joined forces to form the Coalition for Clean Universities, an attempt to tackle long-standing corruption themselves.

So endemic is the problem that the coalition has to monitor the lifestyles of university managers to ensure they are not driving BMWs and living in luxury villas on official incomes of less than £10,000 a year (insert your own joke about vice-chancellors’ pay here).

In our cover feature, meanwhile, we report from Singapore on the rise of its highly planned university sector, where state investment is coupled with state control.

The city state’s status as a global power in higher education is advancing, but it does face reputational issues of its own – not least of which, in the cut-throat fight for international students, is the charge that it is simply a bit “boring”.

Back home, universities will always face controversies (and occasionally scandals) and will do what they can to consign them to history (or write them out of it). But while it would be foolhardy to suggest that the UK’s reputation is in any way “immortal”, generally speaking it does seem in pretty fine fettle.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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