6 October 2011
University reputations that transcend national borders are increasingly appealing to a new breed of globally mobile student, writes Phil Baty
"It is not what you study, how you get in or even what grades you achieve: it is simply where you went to university that matters."
"When pursuing a career in another country, you will always be judged first on the reputation of your university. Having a well-known and well-regarded brand on your CV opens doors," he says.
For McCarthy, university reputation was the lodestone guiding his study decisions.
"To begin with, 'brand' was perhaps the most important factor," he says.
All the universities McCarthy applied to for his first degree were members of the UK's Russell Group of large research-intensive universities - names, he says, that hold sway with employers.
With offers from all his choices, he could then afford to narrow down his decision based on more tangible factors, such as course content, location and opportunities to study abroad.
But in the end, his choice still came down to reputation.
He chose Nottingham for a degree in management with Chinese studies.
"After deciding on the two courses that I was most interested in, university reputation became the deciding factor. I chose Nottingham over a university with a similar course because while they both offered a year in China, Nottingham offered it at its campus at Ningbo - so its exchange programme abroad was still under the University of Nottingham banner."
McCarthy's personal experiences chime closely with figures from i-graduate, the international graduate research company, released to Times Higher Education. The figures show that in a list of factors influencing students' choice of university, an institution's overall reputation comes a close third behind "teaching quality" and "career reputation" (a measure of students' views on the importance of "reputation (value in my career) of a qualification from this institution").
Almost 210,000 international students were asked the importance of a variety of factors when deciding where to study: institutional reputation received a mean score of 3.41 on a 4-point scale, above the standing of the country's academy (3.34), research quality (3.33), cost of study (3.18) and the cost of living (3.13).
"Teaching quality trumps all other factors in student choice and yet is the most elusive measure," says Will Archer, chief executive of i-graduate.
"Students judge their own institution and their own academic staff and tell people how it is. That's why the vast majority of the world's leading universities now track student perception year on year."
He adds: "The key for each university is to ensure that they deliver against the expectations of the brightest and most demanding students, who today define and redefine reputation with the greatest authority, authenticity and regularity."
Reputations today are much more vulnerable than they were in the past, Archer says.
"For centuries, reputations lasted for centuries. Today, substandard provision in a suburb of Sydney will flash around the world within a week - and only the student who hasn't heard of Google won't know.
"Few people today will maintain a degree of blissful ignorance when choosing their degrees. Students have a world of choice, and few will decide without finding out what the experience is like today.
"So the current student experience and the reputation of the institution become critical to the success of future student recruitment."
McCarthy, who is now based in China, believes that university reputation is an even more important factor in the rapidly growing global jobs market.
"I am studying Mandarin at Shanghai Jiao Tong," he says. "I chose to study there not because of the facilities, accommodation or because Shanghai is a comfortable city to live in - it was all about reputation.
"While Jiao Tong might not be internationally renowned, domestically it is recognised as an elite educational institute producing high-calibre graduates. Its alumni include former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. For me, what mattered was that this university was well regarded in China, where I want to work."
He adds: "In China I have learned that reputation, rightly or wrongly, is of paramount value."
Minjung Sung, associate professor in the department of public relations at Chung-Ang University in the Republic of Korea, has been studying the relationship between a university's reputation and student behaviour in the country.
"According to my studies, external prestige or how other people think of the academic institution is one of the major factors that influence students' university choices," she says.
This is particularly true in South Korea, she says.
"We care about how and what other people think," she adds.
And as higher education globalises, the importance of global reputations that transcend national borders rises.
"The importance of a university's global reputation is growing among the students," she says. "Today they certainly look for opportunities to obtain global experiences.
"Rankings - globally as well as locally - build the university's reputation and external prestige. More and more students wish to study abroad or find jobs outside Korea. They certainly want to be recognised as alumni from a university with a good reputation."
But Sung says the fixation on reputation above more practical matters - above even course content and scholarship - is too great in South Korea, where networks and social connections are very powerful.
"One can have better chances if one belongs to a certain group or knows the right people," she says. "Unfortunately, this old-style value has not changed at all: a degree from a prestigious university is more valued in today's wintry economic climate as it gets more difficult to get a job.
"As a scholar, I regret that the reputation and external 'package' of a university is appreciated more by students than the content - the quality of the education and the actual knowledge students gain."
But she adds: "We need to accept the trend of pragmatism. The college degree has become one of the specifications on job applications, as opposed to the barometer of scholarship and the pursuit of truth."