University reputation in a rapidly changing world

Times Higher Education’s head of reputation outlines the current landscape 

November 16, 2022

To coincide with the launch of Times Higher Education’s Reputation Rankings, we’re publishing a series of comment pieces on reputation and higher education. View the ranking results here.

In the increasingly complex world of global higher education, reputation has never been more important as universities seek to position themselves against competitors, but also as positive contributors to society.

The launch of the Times Higher Education Reputation Rankings, reflecting the views of thousands of academics around the world, provides an annual opportunity to take stock of the global trends in this important space.

This year, the results have been eagerly watched as they represent the largest ever response to THE’s Academic Reputation Survey, with 28,000 voters taking part, up from around 11,000 in 2021.

The upper reaches of the Reputation Rankings table have remained remarkably stable over recent years, with the academic “superbrands” from the USA and UK maintaining their dominance. This reflects the sense that reputation is often seen as a “lag factor” – strong profiles built up over time tend to be reflected in the voting patterns of survey respondents.

However, further down the table, the leading Asian institutions continue to make progress with both Tsinghua University and Peking University improving their positions within the top 20, alongside the University of Tokyo and National University of Singapore.

A number of continental European universities also made significant progress, including ETH Zurich, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Technical University of Munich and Delft University of Technology. European universities have traditionally lagged behind others in reputation metrics in the global rankings in recent years, so their progress this year will be interesting to watch.

The impact of Covid-19 on reputation remains unclear

Keen observers of global university reputation trends have been looking out for any knock-on effect from the high profile that many universities achieved during the pandemic, when academic faculty achieved unprecedented levels of media coverage and public awareness.

There is no clear pattern yet emerging in the THE Reputation Rankings. The university with perhaps the highest profile during the pandemic, Oxford University, saw its Reputation Ranking position fall slightly, although it retained its number one position in the overall THE World University Rankings. Johns Hopkins University, another institution that achieved worldwide brand recognition throughout the pandemic, saw no change to its position. However, Imperial College London, whose academics had a high profile during the early phases of Covid-19, saw a big jump, up nine places to 13th in the Reputation Rankings.

The methodology of the Reputation Rankings, which focuses on academics nominating the best universities in their field rather than the university as a whole, suggests that institutions with strengths in the most high-profile research areas – for example virology and epidemiology – are likely to have benefited most from any pandemic effect.

This is also borne out by the dip in performance of specialist institutions without medical schools attached in the Reputation Rankings. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for example – one of the world’s foremost social science institutions – suffered a fall of 11 places in the Reputation Rankings since last year. Of course, the social sciences are making a huge contribution to post-pandemic research, so this trend may only be temporary.

Shifting stakeholder priorities

The THE Reputation Rankings reflects the views of academics, who remain a key group for universities to think about in terms of their global profile. However, other stakeholders are growing in importance, influenced by the pandemic and wider changes in global higher education.

Research by the World 100 Reputation Network, which I run, showed that universities pivoted a great deal of their communications activity during the initial phase of the pandemic towards internal audiences – staff and students.

The need for immediate engagement with these internal groups was paramount when restrictions and regulations related to Covid-19 were in flux. But the new ways of engaging with staff and students embedded during that period have remained critical for universities as they navigate a path through a time of yet more uncertainties, driven by new factors such as global political instability and cost-of-living concerns.

Another audience that has become more critical for universities from a reputation perspective is governments. Again, the pandemic brought these relationships to the fore, as universities had to negotiate rapidly changing conditions imposed by governments, whilst at the same time taking the opportunity to really showcase the societal benefits of research.

A session at the recent World 100 Reputation Network annual conference highlighted key ways in which universities are pivoting their engagement activities with government.

Multi-faceted conversations between universities and governments are now increasingly the norm, with a focus both on education issues – particularly around the value of international students – and research, and a lot of discussion around industry partnerships and the knowledge economy. Whereas previous interactions have often been adversarial in nature, the conference session concluded that the university/government relationship – and the reputational focus – now has to be based on solutions, not just show and tell, on both sides.

Making an impact

One final shift in focus for universities as they consider how to develop their reputations is towards demonstrating the impact of their activities to wider society.

Research last year showed that, despite the uniquely high profile of academics during the pandemic, universities still had to convince the general public of their vital role.

Progress with other audiences, however, has been more substantial. Universities such as Auckland and Manchester have been at the forefront of showcasing the impact of their universities, and the THE Impact Rankings are providing opportunities for many other institutions to make some noise globally in a way that would not have happened previously.

Whilst the THE Impact Rankings do not include any direct reputation measures, they provide a solid framework around which universities can demonstrate impact to key audiences, including governments and civil society partners.

Another linked area through which universities are increasingly building their profiles is their contribution to the sustainability agenda. The University of Glasgow led the way last year with its pivotal role in supporting COP26, and burnished its credentials this year through hosting the inaugural Global Sustainable Development Congress in partnership with THE.

Many other universities are focusing on the need to respond to changing perceptions that place sustainability as a key priority for today’s students.

Global higher education reputation will continue to evolve and the THE Reputation Rankings help to illuminate some of these shifts in global profile amongst the world’s leading institutions. In an ever more complex world, universities will need to think strategically about how they engage with their wide range of stakeholders. Understanding that an institution may have a different reputation with each stakeholder group, and needs a strategy to engage effectively with each, is key.

Mark Sudbury is Times Higher Education’s head of reputation; he also leads the World 100 Reputation Network, which connects leading universities focused on growing their global reputation.

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