League table sizes up v-cs' online impact

Sheffield steals top spot in first ranking of Russell Group chiefs' web presence. Hannah Fearn reports

February 14, 2008

Forget the research assessment exercise, newspaper league tables and citation counts: higher education institutions can now make a bid for glory via a new ranking of individual vice-chancellors' online prestige.

Times Higher Education can reveal that Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield, tops the first ranking of the "internet presence" of the vice-chancellors of 20 Russell Group institutions.

Professor Burnett beat the University of Oxford's John Hood and the University of Cambridge's Alison Richard. Cardiff University's David Grant came last of the 20.

The rating system, QDOS, has been created by technology company Garlik to help high-profile individuals monitor and better control their online identity.

It measures how popular or well-networked an individual is, scanning business networking sites such as LinkedIn, and assesses how active they are online. QDOS also analyses the impact someone has online - via who listens and responds when they communicate on the web - and how easy they are to find.

Professor Burnett said he was pleased to come top of the list. "You want to take pleasure in it, but you don't want to be smug," he said. "When I first heard this I thought, 'What does it mean?' I looked at the criteria and decided that if it means that people are getting information from me and I'm doing that effectively, then I should be very pleased."

At Sheffield, Professor Burnett has been communicating with university academics and staff online. "I haven't been deliberately using the web exclusively, but it's very difficult in a large organisation to meet everybody," he said.

He has also posted audiovisual clips on Sheffield's official website in which he explains his vision for the university, what changes the institution will undergo in future and how they will affect staff.

"You do want to be able to see somebody in an organisation. I did a presentation that was just a few minutes long," Professor Burnett said. "I wouldn't want it to replace the (face-to-face) interaction, but when you want to say something quickly to people it's good. I'll carry on using it."

Tom Ilube, chief executive of Garlik, said that people must acknowledge the importance of their presence online.

"What we're particularly interested in is how our identities are emerging in the digital world," he said.

"In the next few years that's going to be massively important. We want to make people much more aware that they have a digital identity. If people don't get engaged with their identity, somebody else will."

Mr Ilube said the fact that Professor Burnett had a stronger presence online than the heads of Oxford and Cambridge universities showed that in the digital world "the traditional order of things doesn't necessarily apply".

On the web, individuals can gain a prominence and a reputation that is very different from the standing of the organisation that they represent, he said.

But Mr Ilube warned that having a credible presence online was important, especially as the choices of prospective students and employees would rest on institutions' digital image.

"I would encourage vice-chancellors not to get too excited about forcing themselves as high up the scoring (table) as possible," he added.

"If I were a vice-chancellor I would be more interested in impact. I might end up having a lower score than the vice-chancellor at another university who has been blogging away every day but whom nobody takes seriously. I would want to have a score where, two or three times a year, the world that I'm interested in takes notice," Mr Ilube said.

"Younger families are starting to make decisions about what schools to send their children to based on what they can learn about the teachers and headteachers of those schools online. I think that will start to move into higher education as well."

A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said she was surprised that Professor Hood was fourth in the list because of the amount of media coverage he has had since his appointment. His attempts to reform the ancient university's governance arrangements have been extensively reported on.

Despite coming bottom of the table, Cardiff said that Dr Grant, the vice-chancellor, was pleased at the "much-needed publicity" the exercise generated.


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