In today’s globalised and increasingly market-driven higher education world, universities are required to be active in reputation management, something that in a previous era they might have regarded as beneath them.
This was explored at a recent conference, Building Universities’ Reputation, held in Pamplona at the University of Navarra.
In this new world, students may be angry about high tuition fees or difficulty obtaining visas, academics have growing concerns about the pressures on them to publish and perform on research, and governments make ever more demands on higher education.
Universities can no longer easily stand above judgement, critique or accountability.
But how are university managers responding to these reputational challenges?
Rankings have given universities a chance to showcase their best attributes and have become a key source of information for potential students. It is no surprise that many universities have put a lot of effort and resources into trying to master rankings.
But rankings have a big limitation: there are more than 20,000 higher education institutions worldwide, yet only 400 are ranked by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. What happens to the remaining 19,600?
Rankings are just one of the many facets that make up a university’s reputation. University managers need to shift from a rankings-driven communications strategy to one that addresses all the aspects that shape how their institution is perceived.
Reputation is the sum of the perceptions that the higher education sector and the public have of universities: of their character, what they do and what they say they do. Reputation is gained over time, can be lost in a split second and is never static. It cannot be bought; it can only be earned.
Worryingly, a significant number of top universities fail to see this. They are victims of what Rupert Younger, director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, calls the “high-status effect”. This “hides institutions’ reputational defects and creates a false sense of security”, he told the conference.
Of course, there are also universities that want to bolster their profile but get it wrong. Creating a new logo does not mean that a university is any more innovative than it was before or that it has undergone some meaningful change. Likewise, adding the word “international” before every noun (while still teaching in only one language) does not of itself mean that a university is truly open to the world.
Improving reputation starts with a clear vision of what a university is, what it stands for, what it wants to be and whether it has the capabilities to achieve this. Striving for excellence is the first step to a great reputation, but that will lead nowhere without honesty: university managers must be brave to see their strengths and their limitations and then build a reputation that reflects both.
The next step is active listening. Managers need to be aware of what all their stakeholders are saying about them and must avoid, at all cost, falling victim to the high-status effect.
Finally, university managers should not forget their colleagues. Problems such as visas, impossible research demands on academics and competition between institutions are felt across the sector. Universities are not isolated islands but rather form an archipelago of interdependent entities. Only through mutual collaboration can the university sector thrive.