Matter of opinion? Try matter of fact

January 1, 1990

Graduates at graduation ceremony

The Academic Reputation Survey is likely to be a harbinger of things to come and a predictor of future university trends, Phil Baty discovers

The US remains the undisputed superpower when it comes to academic prestige.

In the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2014, the country has strengthened its grip. It takes 46 of the top 100 places (up from 43 last year) and eight of the top 10 (one more than in 2013) – including a clean sweep of the top three.

Harvard University maintains the number one position it has held since THE first published the reputation-only tables in 2011; its Cambridge neighbour, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, retains second place. The West Coast’s Stanford University moves up three places to third, displacing the University of Cambridge (fourth) and the University of Oxford (fifth).

“It is not surprising that US universities are held in such esteem worldwide,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “They have been seen as key institutions for close to a century now, and reputations take time to build up and generally stick unless there is some kind of crisis.

“Many academics and university leaders around the world have studied in the US and hold their alma maters in high esteem. And then, of course, there is the continuing impact of American research productivity.”

The US’ dominance of the top 10 is completed by the University of California, Berkeley (sixth), Princeton University (seventh), Yale University (up from 10th to eighth), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) (up two places to ninth) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) (10th).

As a whole, the US appears to have recovered from a slight blip in its overall reputation last year: across the top 100, only 14 of the 46 US institutions have lost ground this year.

But not everything is rosy. Of those that have fallen away, the majority are public institutions, which have suffered state funding cuts during the US’ financial crisis: for example, the University of Michigan (12th to 15th), the University of Texas at Austin (joint 27th to joint 33rd), the University of Massachusetts (joint 42nd to the 61-70 band), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (51-60 to 61-70), plus the University of Florida and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey (both falling from 81-90 to 91-100).

Although the University of California has six top 100 institutions, their standing has generally declined this year. As well as Berkeley and UCLA’s marginal slips within the top 10, UC San Diego drops six places to 40th, UC Davis falls out of the top 50 into the 51-60 category, and UC Santa Barbara drops a band (51-60 to 61-70).

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: “Higher education in the US is overwhelmingly the strongest sector in the world on every measure: resources, prestige, research outputs, attractiveness to international students and leading researchers.

“But in the post-2008 period it has not been plain sailing. Unprecedented funding reductions in the majority of states have contributed to a sense that the public sector (which educates more than two-thirds of US students) is undergoing troubled times.

“At the same time, the recession, budget cuts and tuition fee hikes have had no negative impact on the standing of the private sector. The whole American academy retains its number one global role, but global opinion is now starting to discriminate between different US institutions more than in the past.”

The reputation rankings are based on nothing more than subjective opinion (albeit the informed, expert insights of experienced scholars from across the world), but such opinion is increasingly important and has real-world consequences.

“The strategic importance of brand and reputation in higher education is now impossible to ignore as universities seek to build academic profile to support research, recruitment, business engagement and philanthropic giving,” says Emma Leech, director of marketing, communications and recruitment at the University of Nottingham and chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s Higher Education Market Interest Group.

“An intensely competitive funding environment, the now-established notion of students as consumers and partners, and a student recruitment environment that is increasingly global are key drivers,” she adds. “Universities are aware that having an attractive reputation is essential to engaging the most talented researchers and, increasingly, the best teaching and professional services staff.”

With the stakes so high, the performance of the UK, the next best represented country in the tables after the US, is cause for concern.

It has 10 representatives in the top 100, up from nine last year. But the data provide evidence of growing polarisation between the London-Oxford-Cambridge “golden triangle” in southeast England and the rest of the country, where significant institutions have stumbled: indeed, eight of the 10 hail from the triangle.

The University of Bristol drops out of the top 100 this year, following the University of Leeds (which did so last year) and the University of Sheffield (which lost its top 100 standing in 2012). In addition, the University of Manchester slips out of the top 50, declining from 47th in 2013 to the 51-60 band this year.

The country boasts two entrants to the table, both small and specialist London-based institutions: London Business School and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (returning to the rankings after falling out of the top 100 in 2012): both gain a foothold in the 91-100 band.

The capital does particularly well in the table: the London School of Economics (LSE) moves up one place to 24th (overtaking local rival University College London (UCL) in 25th); Imperial College London rises from joint 14th to 13th; but perhaps the most notable performer is King’s College London, which leaps from the 61-70 band to joint 43rd.

Sir Rick Trainor, principal of King’s, attributes this success to consolidation after a series of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s that “greatly enhanced the institution” and heralded “a marked rise in international appreciation of the quality of our research and teaching”.

King’s is clearly enjoying a golden period: in the physical sciences, two of its alumni (physicist Peter Higgs and chemist Michael Levitt) were awarded Nobel prizes last year; the university received a £20 million donation from Hong Kong philanthropist Dickson Poon and £7 million from the family of Malaysian alumnus Mark Yeoh; and it recruited Berkeley big-hitter David Caron as dean of law.

Significant increases in the number of international students and academics coming to King’s over the past decade have also played a role in its growing global profile, Sir Rick argues.

“However, our international strategy is not just about recruitment but also a broad range of activities with emphasis on mutuality and reciprocity. We aim to build long-term mutually beneficial relationships of educational exchange and collaboration,” he adds.

But while there is good news for the likes of King’s, the growing divide between the South East and the rest of the country is a worry, argues Bahram Bekhradnia, former director and now president of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute.

“This survey suggests that we are still punching above our weight as far as research performance is concerned: at more than four times our size, the US has only four times the number of universities in the top 100,” he says. “What is worrying is the apparent deterioration in the reputation of a number of our institutions.

“There is a winner-take-all aspect to research performance. Success and perceptions of success reinforce success: other universities are more likely to wish to collaborate with institutions that they perceive to be of high quality – and it is too easy to imagine a downward spiral. So there is quite possibly a reinforcing trend that we are witnessing, with the golden triangle and a small number of other universities emerging as winners.”

He adds: “Although we need to be careful not to read too much into one year’s results – and one snowflake does not make the winter – we nevertheless probably need to be a little apprehensive.”

For Bekhradnia, an institution’s subjective reputation is aligned to more objective standards.

“While reputation surveys do not tell you anything objective about quality, they nevertheless do reflect visibility and the awareness by others of a university’s activities: academics are likely to be more aware of those with whom they have recently collaborated, those with recent relevant articles and those presenting at conferences,” he says.

“So surveys such as this are likely to be harbingers of things to come and predictors of subsequent trends. We should not be surprised if in future years the citation and publication rates of universities that are now ranked lower in reputation surveys begin to follow suit.”

Decline in the UK should come as no surprise, adds Bekhradnia.

“At a time when, despite economic problems, others have sought to protect their research investment, we have seen a real-terms decline. We should expect our research output to follow: it is difficult to imagine why not.”

While US public universities and some of their UK peers continue to suffer funding cuts, many leading Asian institutions are thriving: East Asia gains a top 100 entrant (South Korea’s Yonsei University) and of its 16 representatives, nine rise and three hold fast.

The region’s top performer is Japan, with five representatives. While its flagship, the University of Tokyo, slips out of the top 10, there is better news for the others: Kyoto University joins the top 20, Osaka University makes the top 50, the Tokyo Institute of Technology rises from the 61-70 band to 51-60 and Tohoku University maintains its standing.

South Korea’s Yonsei jumps straight into the 81-90 category and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) rises from the 61-70 band to 51-60. But perhaps its most notable performer is Seoul National University, which leaps to 26th position from 41st.

Seoul National’s president, Oh Yeon-Cheon, says that the university has undertaken several initiatives designed to raise its global profile. These include a visiting programme for eminent scholars and new institutional collaborations, notably joint research within the Besetoha network, whose name is derived from its member institutions: Beijing (Peking) University, Seoul National, Tokyo and the Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

China and its special administrative region of Hong Kong have had a mixed year. China’s top institution, Tsinghua University, slips one place to 36th, but Peking University climbs four places to 41st.

While Hong Kong’s number one, Hong Kong University, falls seven places to joint 43rd, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology does well, rising from the 61-70 category to the 51-60 band.

HKUST has been one of the table’s long-term stars, edging closer to the top 50 after starting in the 91-100 band in 2011.

Its president, Tony Chan, says that the institution’s “relentless pursuit” of excellence in teaching, research and internationalisation is paying off: the university’s curriculum has been reformed to “provide a holistic and experiential education for students”; cross-disciplinary research on the global stage has been stepped up; and international activities have been “deepened and broadened”, with diversified student exchange initiatives, strategic partnerships and closer relations with institutions in mainland China (including a joint School of Sustainable Development established with Xi’an Jiaotong University).

While major Asian institutions are clearly making progress in the global reputation stakes, how far can it take them?

Altbach says there are no quick wins and adds that the nature of university prestige ensures a time lag between reality and reputation.

“Some of the impressive academic developments in Asia may take some time to be recognised,” he says. “Similarly, some universities that have suffered recently or are resting on their laurels may not suffer reputational damage for a while.”

For Ralph Eichler, president of Switzerland’s ETH Zürich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, university excellence is a “long-term commitment”.

“Universities by their very nature are slow-moving organisms. It takes years before a research project generates results. And if we start to plan a new curriculum today, the first graduates will enter the labour market four to six years from now, at the earliest.”

Eichler knows a thing or two about excellence in higher education: his institution is ranked 16th in the world, having consistently gained ground every year since the reputation rankings were first unveiled.

He has a four-point formula for success.

“Talented students” (supplied by a strong Swiss school system and through international recruitment) and “excellent faculty” (two-thirds of them non-Swiss) are essential, he says. Another vital component is “solid funding”: “although the share of third-party funding is growing year by year, 75 per cent of ETH Zürich’s budget is public funding as a block grant”.

The final element in Eichler’s formula for success is institutional freedom.

“ETH enjoys a large degree of autonomy from the Swiss government,” he says. “This allows our researchers to take a long-term view and to engage also in research with uncertain outcomes. Fundamental research in particular requires a long-term commitment.”

Edwin Eisendrath, managing director of global management consultancy Huron Consulting Group, believes that the seemingly unassailable top university brands are no longer guaranteed prime positions.

“Unlike the corporate environment, where the concept of the bottom line is clearly understood across all types of business, higher education and the needs of its consumers are far more diverse,” he explains. “Students, scholars, scientists, parents, employers, policymakers and communities expect different things from their universities. Higher education responds with different kinds of value propositions.

“In place of the clarity of a bottom line, the academic community uses status as its own currency. This has self-referential benefits. For example, it helps faculty research to get noticed, and notice helps to build status. So the top remains stable, until rapid change in any field or society upends status by changing what people care about. We see some of that beginning to happen in movements such as the one towards skills-based education.

“The quickening pace of these sorts of fundamental challenges to the traditional model may not change the top right away, but such change is no longer unthinkable.”

Phil Baty is the Times Higher Education Rankings editor.

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