Echo of big brand sounds

March 21, 2013

Your latest set of World Reputation Rankings nicely demonstrate the circular reasoning that characterises much of the thinking about university reputations and branding. Your data come from asking scholars about the 15 best institutions in their fields. Few will have detailed, current and personal experience of more than about two or three institutions in addition to their own, so will be relying on general ideas of the “best places” in their disciplines, almost certainly reflecting league table rankings (“Stanford? Has to be good. Tokyo? Probably OK, too”) and hearsay evidence.

The results of this survey then feed into your World University Rankings - and the process begins again. This explains what you describe as the widening lead held by six so-called “super-brands” and the implausibly large gap between these institutions and other strong research-intensive universities: the more often these universities appear at the top of such lists, the more often they are likely to be mentioned when people are asked about the best places.

Paul Temple
Centre for Higher Education Studies
Institute of Education
University of London

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Reader's comments (1)

I think it is important to point out that there are some significant misunderstandings about the survey methodology in this letter. Firstly, respondents to the reputational survey are able to name a maximum of 15 institutions – they are in no way obliged to name 15. In fact, the average respondent named 6 institutions. They are asked to name institutions – not rank them - based on their personal, subject-specific experience, which we are confident produces legitimate results. These are people at a narrow subject level who will of course be familiar with the leading departments in their field and will not have to guess or base a response on prejudice. There’s more detail (and a copy of the survey instrument itself) here: Also, the reputation survey makes up only two of 13 separate indicators used to create the World University Rankings and the top six in the reputation survey are considerably different to the top six in the World University Rankings. Caltech, for example, which has been for two years the world number one in the world university rankings, is outside the top 10 on reputation.

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