The world regards an elite group of six universities as being head and shoulders above the rest, a new global ranking of higher education institutions has found.
The results of the first Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, based on an invitation-only survey of more than 13,000 academics around the world, also reinforce the US academy's dominant international position and indicate that the UK's and Japan's universities have a strong global standing.
The survey, conducted in eight languages by Ipsos Media CT for THE's ranking-data partner Thomson Reuters, asked experienced academics to highlight what they believed to be the strongest universities for teaching and research in their own fields.
The rankings suggest that the top six - Harvard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Cambridge; the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University and the University of Oxford - form a group of globally recognised "superbrands".
Simon Pratt, project manager for institutional research at Thomson Reuters, said the reputational measures are "highly skewed, with the top universities getting many multiples of the responses that universities lower down the table receive".
He added that the data "show a significant difference in the reputational standing of the top six, with a drop in the number of responses below that level".
Harvard tops the table, while California has three institutions in the top 10 - more than the entire UK.
The survey was part of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2010-11, published last September, which also included objective indicators such as research performance and funding. The reputation data, collected in spring 2010, are published in isolation for the first time.
The figures show that UK universities do better on reputation than on actual performance, prompting concerns that the nation is "trading on reputation" that could be damaged by government policy.
Of the 12 UK universities in the reputation top 100, eight perform better than they do in the overall rankings. Placing sixth in the World University Rankings, Cambridge is third in the reputation table, while the London School of Economics - which has seen its reputation take a battering in recent weeks - is 37th, compared with its 86th-place spot in the World University Rankings.
Others that do well include the University of Manchester (87th in the overall rankings but in the 61-70 reputation bracket) and the University of Leeds (joint 168th overall but in the 81-90 reputation bracket).
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "Given recent cuts in government spending on higher education - while international competitors pump billions into their institutions - it is more important than ever that the new fee regime allows our universities to maintain their well-deserved global reputation for excellence."
Trading on the name?
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that despite the UK's "proud international reputation...we will soon get found out if we think we can trade on reputation alone".
She added: "The government should stop attacking universities and look at what other countries are doing: investing in higher education in the long-term interests of society, not slashing funding on capital expenditure and dreaming up impractical projects for micromanaging research."
Of the UK's 12 representatives in the reputation top 100, 11 are members of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities.
Several institutions from the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities that made the overall top 100 drop out of the reputation table, suggesting their global profile does not match their performance.
Japan has five representatives in the reputation top 100, putting it in third place behind the US and the UK and ahead of Canada and Australia.