Overseas PhD students rely on rankings to select a university

Prospective students seek an institution in the top 200 but ‘brand personality’ is a puzzle to them

October 30, 2014

Source: Alamy

Superior: global rankings were the top source of information on reputation

Universities’ reputations play a key role in attracting international PhD students and have become tightly bound up with their position in global rankings, a report has revealed.

The study, How International PhD Students Choose Top Universities and Interpret Reputation and Rankings, prepared by The Knowledge Partnership, a marketing agency, for the World 100 Reputation Network, finds that reputation is an important part of students’ initial consideration of possible universities to decide between.

The attractiveness of an institution’s country and city also influences early deliberations. It is not until a shortlist is established that the availability of suitable supervisors and funding support becomes more prominent.

Respondents listed global university rankings as their top source of information on reputation. More than three-quarters of the students from 21 universities – including 11 in the UK – who were interviewed said that being at a top 200 university mattered to them. Times Higher Education’s rankings appeared “marginally more influential” than the others.

Additional indicators of university reputation included a long history and teaching in English.

As well as rankings, students also sought information about reputation from their current supervisors, citation databases and university websites. The report, aimed primarily at university communications and marketing staff, notes that the websites are “much easier to influence by good communications and marketing than rankings”.

However, the study also expresses surprise that most students were unable to articulate their selected university’s “brand personality”.

“Most students went silent [when asked to do so], or told us this was ‘very difficult’. Those who attempted an answer discussed rankings or rather generic characteristics like friendliness, or told us the university sold branded caps and T-shirts…Is this because [the students] are too young [to understand brand personality], that it doesn’t matter, or that they simply haven’t been told in an effective way what it is?”

Students were also unable to explain what their university did to market itself, and did not recognise campaigns “even when they were sitting a few feet away from a university brand banner across a street”.

Therefore, the report suggests, universities could do more to use students in helping to market the institution to others. “Perhaps students could play a more active role in marketing and endorsement if they were engaged and able to communicate some of the narratives of the university and reflect its successes beyond that of their own area,” the report suggests.


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Reader's comments (1)

No surprises regarding brand personality, it would be difficult for most students to articulate at a distance. However, the same point can be made about brand or customer propositions. Most universities use the same terminology to describe themselves and use an 'inside:out' approach rather than thinking about and communicating the benefits for students and other target audiences. Distinctiveness is not a characteristic of the sector, though it may and should increasingly become so.