Top 20 ways to improve your world university ranking

Amanda Goodall offers twenty inexpensive methods to help your institution climb the world university league tables

November 29, 2013

With the inaugural Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings launched on Wednesday 4 December 2013, the scrutiny of university performance and levels of global competition are growing all the time. As a result, universities around the world are thinking harder than ever about how to improve their international standing.

But what can universities do to improve their position? Here we provide a list of suggestions, originally written by Amanda Goodall in the 18 February 2010 issue of Times Higher Education and drawn from evidence, experience and anecdote.



Carrot on a stick

1. To change a university, you need to change people’s incentives

The average academic or administrator in a university is completely unaware of your university’s strategy document. If they have seen it, they think it is waffle. So if your strategy is supposed to change behaviour, you have to provide new incentives for your staff, and monitor performance from the top.

University strategy works best if it is a simple list of key priorities and not an operations manual. Marketing experts may advise us that we need elaborate brochures, but the effect of these on the internal community is questionable. Something glossy may be useful for fundraising purposes, however.

Superman business leader

2. To attract the best faculty, you need the best leaders

If raising or maintaining research quality is part of the strategy, hire the best scholars you can and put them in positions of power - pro vice-chancellor for research, dean or head of department.

The best universities and business schools have been shown to hire the best scholars as their heads. The probable reason is that other great scholars will choose to be there because the culture and values of the place will likely be more amenable under a fellow researcher.

Also, a dean who is a successful scholar may feel less threatened by someone “famous” coming in.

Finally, if a dean or pro vice-chancellor of research is not a good scholar, he or she may have limited credibility and power within the institution.

Who would pay any attention to a pro vice-chancellor with few publications telling other staff to improve their research output?

Woman being interviewed

3. Control quality through hiring panels

The vice-chancellor is the standard bearer, and, therefore, he or she should set the quality threshold in the institution. If you want good hires to be made, then control the process yourself.

A head will, and should, delegate, but only after those receiving the delegated powers have proved themselves. Make sure the very best researchers are on hiring and probation committees.

Humans tend to select others who are like themselves. A hiring panel made up of grade-two researchers is unlikely to want to hire a grade-one researcher.

The same is true in academic departments or schools. Why make life difficult for ourselves by hiring people who are much better than us?

The status quo is much preferable, at least among the established faculty - the younger ones are more likely to want to raise standards.

Create a committee to advise the vice-chancellor that polices all hiring, promotion and probation decisions. Ultimately, if this process is going to work, it has to be driven and monitored by a leader.

Finally, ban the phrase “is there anyone on the list who is appointable?”. It encourages tolerance for mediocrity.

Businessman extending hand

4. Hire the best

Again, the vice-chancellor should create and drive this process, and be available to talk to potential hires personally, as should the pro vice-chancellor for research and the head of the recruiting department.

As mentioned earlier, the vice-chancellor should sit on major hiring panels or, at the very least, review the candidates. If the university head isn’t able or prepared to control the people who join and leave, then the game is lost.

Don’t just advertise; think about who the perfect candidate might be. Human resources departments could become more active in attracting (and keeping) the best staff.

If you are looking to hire a dean of school or a head of department, stop all new appointments in that department prior to the head arriving, especially key positions such as professorships.

The power to make one’s own appointments is an important incentive for an incoming head. A new dean should also be able to put in place his or her own top management team.

Start schmoozing from the moment you speak to a potential candidate. HR should help department heads by feeding candidates information about local schools and housing options.

Wine and dine your top prospects, and whatever you do don’t let the perfect candidate wander around campus alone trying to find a sandwich!

Hands with their thumbs up

5. Know the talent list and congratulate people

It is inconceivable that a successful commercial organisation would not be fully aware of its most talented staff. Find out who they are in your university - researchers, teachers and administrators.

Make sure that people on the ground let the vice-chancellor know when someone does something commendable. Then send a congratulatory note.

When you reward your teachers, make it generous. Try to let people know that their contribution has not gone unnoticed.

An academic’s life is lonely. Loyalty, it is often remarked, is to the discipline, not to the university. This is rational.

Researchers usually receive positive feedback only from colleagues in their field - assessment is by their peers, which leads to publishing, promotion and, ultimately, pay.

Academics will show loyalty to a university, but the institution must do more than get them to fill in forms.

Ensure that one or more members of staff - preferably in the HR department - know exactly who your outstanding people are, and whether they are happy or not.

Attracting top staff is a gruelling and increasingly expensive process - be sure to hang on to those you have!

Pain/Gain tattoos

6. No pain, no gain

If you want to change an organisation, it is going to hurt. If you just want an easy ride for a few years before you get a pension, then don’t bother with a strategy for change.

The leader, board members, junior faculty and some of the top people may think that moving up in the rankings is a great idea. But it is unlikely that everyone else will. We all tend to prefer the status quo.

Making “tenure” decisions can sometimes hurt the most. You get to know the person; maybe by now you are good friends.

This is why the head of department should be someone who can take tough but fair decisions; and when heads of department make those difficult decisions, the vice-chancellor and other top team members must support them.

The final say on tenure or probation decisions should come from outside a department. But often there is a culture of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” - in other words, we’ll go with your department’s first choice if you go with ours.

Any committee making probation decisions has to be controlled by the vice-chancellor, via delegation to a pro vice-chancellor of research if necessary, and it should be populated by your best scholars, who are fully aware of the university’s strategy with regard to hiring and promotions criteria.

A probation decision should not be made lightly. A new faculty member could stay on the payroll for 35 years.

Also, a wrong decision will hurt the junior academic in the long run.

Being in a department where you feel you are not good enough is stressful. Having colleagues who are a little better is motivating.

But if they are all a lot better it can lead to depression and isolation.

'Change Ahead' road sign

7. Too much change, no gain

Too much organisational change drives people mad.

University strategy is usually initiated and led by the vice-chancellor. Leaders should have control of the strategy and the concomitant powers to make it happen.

But a head may stay in post for only a few years. So to avoid the institution’s strategy flip-flopping each time a new leader arrives, the board should attempt to bear overall responsibility for it.

In other words, try to be consistent when hiring leaders. If the overarching strategy is to develop the best interdisciplinary social science faculty, or the largest medical school in the region, then hire the next vice-chancellor with this in mind.

It needn’t be the only thing an incoming vice-chancellor thinks about (every leader will have his or her own agenda) but if a predecessor has invested university resources and effort, don’t waste what has been achieved.

Universities take a very long time to change. To be the best in anything requires focus, tenacity and time.

Man's hand holding £20 notes

8. Pay a top salary if you want the right department head

There aren’t many more important posts in a university than the position of head of department. Pulling teeth from an angry dog is easier than hiring good heads of department.

A university should be prepared to pay a decent salary for the privilege of a top-notch department head. Offer a lot more than one term’s sabbatical leave, often spent in rehab!

Great department chairs make all the difference to the job of vice-chancellor. Again, heads of department should be among the best scholars in the department, and the vice-chancellor should make the appointment.

Growing money plant

9. Incentivise raising research money

All new vice-chancellors or presidents do the rounds of departments when they arrive. It is a rare thing when “we want to raise more research money” is not top of their list.

What doesn’t get said, however, is why members of a department should do it when there is rarely any mention of incentives. If you want more research money raised in the university, offer to give something back in return.

For example, the department gets to keep an extra 10 per cent (buying out teaching and administration time should be a given).

Scissors cutting red tape

10. Cut the red tape and reduce the number of committees

How often have we heard this said, and how often does it happen?

Red tape really does cause a lot of damage in our universities. It slows everything down, affects innovation, weakens motivation, reduces research time and, therefore, quality.

Bureaucracy can also be a deterrent when trying to keep good staff. Administrative processes have ballooned. We have got to stop the tail wagging the dog.

All committees, systems and processes should be assessed, and the question posed: how does this help the core business of research and teaching? If the case is unclear, get rid of it.

Committee minutes and reports could be cut to a minimum. If necessary, hire a lawyer to make sure the dots are covered. Don’t let your best people waste productive time on administration.

This is especially relevant when trying to encourage scholars to take management jobs.

If you don’t know where red tape causes the most jams in your institution, ask your best researchers, teachers and administrators, and consult with a recently joined faculty member, preferably one from the US.

Woman holding smiley emoticon sign

11. As a leader, be accessible

Not just to your top team. Have a policy of hearing what others are trying to say.

Be able to take bad news, too. You have made it to the top and that is quite something. Now you can have a little humility and make others feel good about themselves.

There’s nothing better than being told that what you do makes a contribution. So what if Professor X has a massive ego?

Be available to students also: eat where they eat; give a seminar or lecture directed at the student body; and let them know who you are.

If you are the kind of vice-chancellor who mainly wants to be liked, or likes to compete with your staff, don’t take the job of leader.

Also, many vice-chancellors and senior managers start to talk in a different language - managerialism.

Don’t forget the culture and the values of the place. Plain English works best.

Businessmen shaking hands

12. Clarify the relationship between administrative and academic staff

How many times have we heard academics and administrators moan about each other - even registrars make jokes about academics in large administrative meetings.

The core business of a university - research and teaching - does not exist without academics. This should be explained. It rarely is.

If a great scholar leaves, it will have negative implications for the whole institution. That needs to be known by everyone.

Similarly, the role of administrators is sometimes viewed as “less important” by academics. But the relationship between academics and administrators is interdependent.

Better communication and a bit more networking time together could make the world of difference. If the central administration is located in a building miles away from the academics, mutual respect and understanding will be less likely to develop.

Academic-related administrators, fundraisers and PR staff should dine (in decent facilities) with academics regularly.

Teacher disciplining schoolboy

13. Start to train scholars in management when they are young

If, as I have argued, good scholars make the best leaders in universities, then potential scholar-leaders need to be trained early in their careers.

Much management education is viewed as overly long-winded and not tailored to the needs of academics. Young scholars have almost no incentive to go on these type of courses, because they are viewed as being detrimental to their research careers.

Short, concise, relevant courses (half-day maximum) should be offered with necessary incentives to researchers throughout their careers - little but relatively often.

(Maybe such schemes could replace the long, drawn-out teaching courses.)

Wrong/Right decision

14. Pick your board or council members because - and only because - they are good for the university, and then educate them

The former head of one of America’s most famous universities once told me: “Private universities are much better at selecting boards. They only choose people who are deemed to be good for the university.”

Is that true of your board or council members?

A second important question is: do your board members really understand the business of universities? Do they know what your university does best?

It is crucially important that board members understand the institutions that they are governing.

Finally, and in relation to both previous points, ensure that you have outstanding scholars on your board or council.

These should be individuals from among current staff, and, importantly, emeritus scholars or professors from outside the university, ideally former students who are loyal to the institution.

Former registrars or key administrative staff may also be good additions to boards.

Businessman holding 'No' card

15. Tell Government ‘No!’

University leaders are the vanguard of the sector. If they lie down, the tanks roll in. There is no other protection.

Being a vice-chancellor is without a doubt the hardest job in higher education. But it is depressing when we hear that universities will have to pay for the mess caused by the City.

Let’s hope the vice-chancellors fight the good fight.

Basket of fruit and vegetables

16. Give staff food for their tummies as well as thought

The importance of good food cannot be overestimated.

How often do we hear the words “we want to encourage interdisciplinarity”? Where are these disciplines supposed to meet each other?

Rarely are there good-quality restaurants in UK universities - places that openly encourage academics to meet with each other (or with academic-related staff). Usually they are embarrassing!

There is a strong correlation between the consumption of fruit and vegetables and good mental health. (You want more mad professors?)

Man in front of blackboard

17. Hire a scholar as leader

The evidence from my research shows that the best universities are led by outstanding scholars and also that better scholars improve the future performance of universities.

Of course leaders must be good managers with experience of leadership, but that should be assumed.

A back-of-an-envelope suggestion is that the vice-chancellor, rector or president should be at least as good as the top 10 per cent of scholars in the institution.

Five year birthday cupcake

18. Make sure the leader stays at least five years - and preferably more

A university leader who is in post for much less than five years is unlikely to have the institution’s best interests at heart.

In my research, those universities that performed the best in the research assessment exercise were led by scholars whose tenure was between seven and ten years.

But vice-chancellors shouldn’t overstay, either.

Man casting athletic shadow

19. Give the leader plenty of power (or don’t bother hiring one)

Leaders need power if they are to be effective. Don’t force them to go through loads of committees before a decision can be made.

Give a leader power and his or her own modest pot of money, but ensure that you have a decent chair of the board or council acting as overseer.

Man being chosen by employer (illustration)

20. Let the leader pick his or her own top team

A university head must have the power to pick his or her top management team.

The vice-chancellor should, if possible, select the top team within the first few months of being in post.

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Reader's comments (2)

Here's a great way to become a better university: ignore THE authors who bow and scrape to managerial philosophy and the callous market-speak of spurious "rankings." Instead, focus on producing original research; teaching students to think critically, enjoy new knowledge, and become responsible citizens; make a positive contribution to your society and, when possibly, to global society. Lastly, treat your staff and students with fairness and respect. Regardless of your rankings, you will be a fine university.
I do agree that some of these issues the author discusses would indeed help increase the ranking of a university that aims to be a top research university. And I agree that often decision-making at least in UK is stifled by excessive bureaucracy and lack of empowerment for academic managers. However one should dispute to what extent the rankings themselves are an indicator of a great university. We are witnessing governments questioning the financing of university research as universities try to make sense of what they are in the modern world. The connection between a university and research is being decoupled at the moment. Furthermore, for the great majority of universities teaching is what keeps the wheels running. There is a disguised contempt for teaching in this particular article; all the emphasis is on research and research active higher management. In my experience many of the great research "talents" and researchers tend to be terrible teachers and even worse managers. Research and the PhD are not activities that prepare you well for the classroom or management where you are not really interacting with your mates... And vice versa, most good teachers and managers are often not great researchers. Put top researchers at the top of a university and you have people who live in a world of research and not of reality. Put managers and you have people who can not understand academia. Put teachers and research is dismissed. My belief is that the super-human VC advocated of in this article is a figment of the author's imagination and like Superman s/he may be able to fly but real s/he is not.