In an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace, branding has become big business for universities.
Institutions know that, in a sense, the degrees they confer are worth only as much as their brand. In nations where tuition fees are established, students "buy" a brand that will appeal to the right businesses when it is time to find a job; their choice of university will become part of their own "brand identity". To attract the right calibre of academics, a university relies on its brand. And when those same academics submit a proposal for research funding or a paper to a leading journal, the brand of their institution may play a role in how their research is judged. The university's brand becomes part of their own brand as an academic.
The notion of a university as a brand is one that many in higher education are comfortable with. It induces a wave of nausea in others, who warn that by focusing on branding, universities promote a view of higher education as a commodity rather than as a good in itself.
But if a university is a brand, a key factor determining its strength is reputation in teaching and research (brand and reputation are distinct but related). And the views of academics on university reputation are crucial, for they give an insight into which institutions are best placed to attract top talent, and also influence the views of students and parents.
The results of the first Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings shed light on this increasingly important measure. The reputation ranking is drawn from a survey of more than 13,000 experienced academics worldwide, carried out by polling company Ipsos for our rankings data provider, Thomson Reuters. The data informed the current Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11, but are now published in isolation for the first time, revealing clear discrepancies between some institutions' reputations and their overall ranking.
"It is great to be able to see reputation in 'pure' form and to compare the outcome with the outcome by other measures," says Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne. "Reputation is itself an identifiable market - one that matters and has material effects. It is created by a number of accumulating factors: the weight of activity in hundreds of different institutional sites, relations and transactions; conscious promotional campaigns, major events that result in news reporting, memories of past activities; and word of mouth effects."
One notable surprise is the strong performance of Japanese institutions, with the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Osaka University all performing better in the World Reputation Rankings than they did in the World University Rankings.
Japan has five institutions in the reputation top 100, making it the best performer behind the US and the UK and producing a better score than major higher education nations such as Canada and Australia.
The US remains dominant in reputation, taking 45 of the places in the top 100, but again, there were some surprises.
The California Institute of Technology, rated second in the World University Rankings, is 10th on reputation. Marginson suggests that the institution's "specialist science research profile is tailor-made for the THE (main World University Rankings) and some other rankings", but that it is "not as well known as the more comprehensive Ivy Leaguers".
The UK universities generally do better in the reputation rankings compared with their overall rankings, with the London School of Economics rated 37th on reputation but 86th overall.
China's top-rated institution is Tsinghua University, in 35th place.
Of the four Australian universities in the reputation top 100, the leading two - the University of Melbourne and Australian National University - place lower than they did in the world rankings. This shift may betray a perception that "top Australians are not stellar quality", Marginson suggests, which "might be partly due to the fact that Australia markets 'Brand Australia' in the international education market as if all institutions are equivalent".
Crucially, there appears to be only a small number of globally recognised "super brands". Those completing the survey were asked to highlight what they believed to be the strongest universities in their specific fields. After the 20 most frequently cited universities, there is a rapid drop in the number of mentions given to institutions. Indeed, there were only very narrow differences between the scores of those below the rank of 50 (which is why they are ranked in groups of 10).
There is also a high correlation between the scores respondents gave to institutions for teaching and research. Nevertheless, in general, US and Japanese universities seem to have better reputations in research than in teaching.
It seems logical that larger institutions would fare better, because they are more likely to gain attention as they generate greater numbers of papers and offer more scope for academic exchanges and collaborations. However, Simon Pratt, project manager for institutional research at Thomson Reuters, says the data "do not show a strong correlation between institution size and reputation".
But he adds: "A size-related aspect does emerge when comparing differences between the results in the Reputation Rankings and the results for the World University Rankings. For example, those that do better in the Reputation Rankings than in the World University Rankings are often quite large universities such as the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Wisconsin."
So size, and the greater likelihood of international exposure, may help to explain Japan's strong performance (see box, below).
What are the practical implications of all this? "Reputation in the academic world is a necessary condition for the success of a university," says Bernd Huber, president of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. "To be well known as a place with high academic quality builds the foundation for hiring and recruiting excellent young researchers and professors."
Of course, reputation and brand are not the same thing. But Pat Freeland-Small, chief marketing officer at the University of Melbourne, says the former feeds the latter.
The world elite of universities, he says, do not need to advertise, "but in a way they are advertising. They are constantly communicating the quality of what they do through their people and what they naturally put out...It is their people, their quality of research - notions that come through the academic community - that advertise their international profile.
"It will be the quality, the capital, that universities are perceived to have that will start to drive...the development of global brands."
Freeland-Small joined Melbourne from the Foster's Group, where he was business development director. He oversaw the university's branding as it introduced the "Melbourne model", a radical restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum designed to align it with structures in the US and Europe. He says he initially had to work just to make people aware of the value of the university brand.
"There hasn't been any sort of formalised evaluation of university brands because universities are not listed on the stock exchange."
So what is Melbourne's "brand"? And is it true to the reality or just a marketing man's construction? Freeland-Small says it is about being "guided by the public-spirited aspects of being a university within the city of Melbourne and state of Victoria, but with world excellence in mind".
Phrases such as "heart and soul", "truthful" and "authentic" recur in his description.
"The academic community can be very cynical," he says. "It was important to keep things real. The proposition was basically one of the university striving for excellence in research and learning" - a branding message that was "the sort of proposition that the academic community bought into anyway".
As that implies, not all branding derives from and is directed by marketing teams. An interesting example of what might be termed "soft" branding - based in representations of a university's research or scholarship rather than overt marketing - is the broadcasting of the lectures on justice by Michael Sandel of Harvard University, the top institution in our reputation rankings.
After being shown by a Boston-based public TV station and online, the lectures by Sandel, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass professor of government, were picked up by the BBC in the UK and by a public broadcaster in Hong Kong.
Viewers see Sandel deliver his lectures in Harvard's impressive Sanders Theatre: all dark-wood panelling, pews and balconies. Sandel himself, with his receding hair and thin lips, is said to be the physical inspiration for Montgomery Burns in The Simpsons. But unlike that character, Sandel comes across as likeable and witty. He smiles, he jokes, he engages with his students' ideas and takes the trouble to ask their names. He makes the work of Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant accessible without dumbing down.
But the camera spends as much time on the listening Harvard students as on Sandel. They are a racially diverse group, they make lively contributions and laugh too; they appear intelligent but "normal". After seeing all that, what bright school pupil wouldn't want to go to Harvard? The broadcast allows promising students to imagine fitting in there.
Christine Heenan, vice-president for public affairs and communications at Harvard, says that for many viewers, this was their first "actual" image of the university, as opposed to the fictional representations in films such as Love Story or The Social Network. The latter gives an unflattering portrayal of some Harvard undergraduates.
"In addition to being stimulating and thought-provoking," she says of Sandel's lectures, "one of the other values is that it is demystifying: this is what the college looks like, this is how the professor sounds."
The university is using digital media in other ways, too, to spread its message to new audiences. A web simulcast panel discussion about the 10th anniversary of the completion of the mapping of human genome, chaired by Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, generated intense interest. And 8,000 live viewers followed a recent panel discussion among Harvard Kennedy School scholars about Egypt's future.
Then there is Harvard's Daily Gazette, emailed automatically to all faculty and any other subscribers. Readers now share stories about Harvard research and scholarship with colleagues and family around the world.
"We make it as easy as possible for that information to be shared, to be uploaded to Facebook or to other social networking sites, and to extend these stories as far and as wide as possible," says Heenan.
Her job is about "reinforcing positive associations" and seeking to "combat the false dichotomies" of Harvard's brand. "We were viewed as traditional. That doesn't mean we're not open to new ideas, new ways of doing things. We were viewed as old - we are - but that doesn't mean we're not innovative."
Would Heenan agree with the argument that the best university branding involves the honest representation of research and scholarship? "I think this is the future of any kind of effective branding," she says. "It is more show me - not tell me - and let me draw my own conclusions."
Brand and reputation are not static. They require care and management - especially when events threaten to tarnish an institution.
University College London found itself facing a potential reputational nightmare after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was accused of trying to blow up an aircraft with a bomb concealed in his underwear on Christmas day 2009.
The Nigerian had been a mechanical engineering undergraduate at UCL and president of its Islamic society. The media asked whether he had been radicalised at UCL, and whether the college had been too lax in its oversight of the Islamic society's activities.
Mark Sudbury, UCL's director of communications, says the institution's immediate message centred on establishing a "credible starting position" by demonstrating the work the college had already done in challenging extremism. But it also stressed its "commitment to freedom of speech".
"Ultimately, we did not suffer major reputational damage because people understood the position we were coming from," Sudbury says. "We did some research with key audiences a few months after, and a fairly strong message came back that it hasn't damaged us."
On more orthodox branding territory, UCL has undergone a major shift in creating what Sudbury describes as "a coherent corporate identity that could be used across the organisation".
UCL is now branded with the phrase "London's Global University".
The college already had "a collection of quite strong brands in their own right", Sudbury says. But many outsiders were unaware that world-famous names such as the Slade School of Art and the Bartlett School of Architecture had any connection with UCL.
There has been "a big impact on our reputation globally since (people) know these sub-parts are part of the UCL family", Sudbury says.
To further refine and clarify its brand, the institution also gave a great deal of thought to the name University College London, which "can be quite complex for some audiences", Sudbury says. "There are issues about how that fits in with the University of London. Our focus has been very much on developing the 'UCL' brand. We want to be known as UCL."
Of course, a university's branding is a significant consideration not just for an institution and its success, but also for its students and potential students.
"A diploma from a university is one of the most personal brand choices you can make from an individual point of view," says Doug de Villiers, chief executive officer of brand consultancy Interbrand in Africa. "We put a massive amount of value into it."
Businesses' perception of university brands also adds value, points out de Villiers, who is also adjunct faculty at the University of Pretoria's Strathmore Business School.
"If you look at (consultancies) like McKinsey or Deloitte, these guys have a specific profile of graduates that they attract. They look to places like Stanford or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which adds value to those academic institutions' brands."
As the number of people with a degree increases, a premium brand degree becomes all the more valuable to distinguish individuals. "Given the choice of going to a public university or getting an MBA at Harvard, you would choose Harvard - because of the reputation and because of the brand," de Villiers says.
While de Villiers admits that it can be "tough" to talk to academics about branding, he says "you will see academics becoming more comfortable with the concept of brand and brand value. It also attracts faculty: it has implications for their publishing and the value of their personal brand."
He continues: "Universities are understanding that they need to consider the entire stretch here. The ability to attract students, the ability to engage in expansion with other universities globally - this all comes from branding."
For some, that could be a dispiriting vision of higher education - a calling reduced to a commercial service.
Roger Brown, editor of Higher Education and the Market (2010), warns that the increasing interest in branding paves the way for universities to spend more money on marketing and amenities to attract students, rather than on teaching and research.
"The more you put higher education on a market basis, the more resources are diverted into this sort of activity," he says.
Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, sees reputation surveys as part of the problem. "Unfortunately there is very little basis for any of the reputational surveys...Very few people know much about other institutions."
Because the substance of what happens at universities occurs at departmental level, out of sight of most observers, reputation surveys "tell you nothing about quality", Brown contends. "They reinforce the great push for status that is the curse of our times and which (demands for) higher graduate contributions (to the cost of their education) will continue to increase."
More generally, the focus on reputation and brand "gets us even further from what ought to be the purpose of higher education", he says. "As a student, you should go to the university and (do the) course that is most going to develop you individually and make you think."
But if it is true that students are increasingly buying a brand when they choose a degree course, and increasingly seeking a premium brand, then some important trends emerge for universities.
Premium brands can charge premium prices. In countries such as England, where the government already wants to create a market in tuition fees, brand and reputation will be central to universities' thinking on how to set fees and how to pitch to students.
Our survey suggests that there are only a handful of globally recognised brands in higher education. As universities in the West and in Asia increasingly look beyond their regional and national environments - where they may have strong profiles - and set up overseas campuses and partnerships, they need to establish themselves quickly with foreign students and academics who may not be familiar with them.
More universities will want to join the ranks of those with a global reputation, whether that is a reputation as an elite institution or one with proven vocational and professional qualifications. In a crowded, competitive marketplace, you need something that makes you stand out instantly: a brand.
Eastern eminence: Japanese stand out in the eyes of the world
Japan's reputation results will be encouraging for a nation traditionally regarded as an underachiever in world higher education.
Roger Goodman, Nissan professor of modern Japanese studies at the University of Oxford, says the disappointing performance of Japanese universities in rankings has led to "academic panic and a lot of soul-searching".
He notes that Japan has a population of 1 million, "the world's third-largest economy and the second-largest investment (if one adds public and private contributions) in its higher education system. Its research output is commensurate with its size; it has a 150-year history of investment in higher education at the national and private level; it has one of the highest rates in higher education participation in the world - 75 per cent of 18-year-olds go on to some form of tertiary education in Japan; and Japanese schoolchildren come pretty close to top in all global comparative league tables."
In that context, the country's international rankings performance is regarded as "a pretty paltry result", Goodman says. Its top universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11 are Tokyo (26), Kyoto (57) and Tokyo Institute of Technology (joint 112).
So why does Tokyo believe it fared so much better in the reputation rankings, where it comes eighth? A university spokesman believes reputation "could capture many elements that other numerical measures may miss.
"For example, achievements of our staff in many disciplines, such as those in humanities and social sciences, are not accurately reflected in standard citation datasets as they are mainly published in Japanese or in journals not included in such datasets.
"Also, overall and long-term contribution to society may not be easily reflected in many numerical, flow-based measures."
Register to continue
Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.
Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:
- Sign up for the editor's highlights
- Receive World University Rankings news first
- Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
- Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Or subscribe for unlimited access to:
- Unlimited access to news, views, insights & reviews
- Digital editions
- Digital access to THE’s university and college rankings analysis
Already registered or a current subscriber?Sign in now