A new view of university reputation

THE is taking a deeper look at the perception of universities, a measure that has become increasingly important during the pandemic, says Duncan Ross

January 13, 2021
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One of the aspects of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings that always receives a lot of attention is our measurement of reputation. Every year, we survey thousands of published academics across the world and ask them to name the universities that they believe are the best in research and teaching.

Reputation is an interesting concept. It is a subjective indicator and sometimes people contrast this (negatively) with “hard” or “objective” measures, such as bibliometrics. There is a whole blog to be written about just how subjective bibliometrics can be, but that is for another time.

For a long time at THE we have thought about what reputation really means. I have often compared it to the concept of brand – and certainly to my mind that makes some sense. But with our recent acquisition of The Knowledge Partnership (TKP) and their World 100 Reputation Network, we’ve been able to start exploring reputation in a richer way with experts in the field.

Am I right about reputation being largely comparable to brand? That description is probably too limited, according to Mark Sudbury, head of World 100 and reputation at TKP, who said that in recent years universities have come to understand that having a strong reputation is vital across a wide range of different aspects of their work.

“In the past people have tended to confuse reputation with brand, thinking far too narrowly about how you are recognised,” he said.

“Having a strong reputation is vital to a range of important things: recruiting the best students and staff, and increasingly things like making partnerships, securing funding and engaging with key stakeholders.”

In its tracker tool, the World 100 Reputation Network uses an ongoing set of detailed surveys with a variety of university stakeholders to explore reputation in greater detail over time. It looks at four broad sets of opinions:

  • a set of audiences around the student recruitment process, including undergraduate and master’s level prospective students, student advisers, and parents;
  • external stakeholders, including businesses, governments, journalists, and rankers;
  • international audiences;
  • internal audiences, including current staff and students and alumni.

These groups comprise a broad stakeholder universe that can be tracked across time.

Our research-focused World University Rankings surveys academics, while our teaching-focused rankings for the US and Japan are heavily based on the views of students. We are also beginning to explore the attitudes of prospective international students on THE Student.

But could we also survey businesses and governments for our research rankings, and academics, professional staff and alumni for our teaching rankings?

Some of these audiences would provide interesting and useful additions to our rankings, but in each case including them would be a major challenge. Dedicated research, through tools such as the tracker, can explore reputation among different stakeholders for a well-defined group of universities, but it would prove much more difficult to do this for the more than 1,500 universities across the World University Rankings.

However, during the pandemic, universities have had to think even harder about how to engage with their stakeholders and this work can and should provide additional insights that sit alongside our rankings data.

Take students: the way that universities communicate with them has a really important impact on the way that those students understand their relationship with the university. That’s really important now but it will be just as important as they go on to become alumni. Prospective students are looking at universities in a very different way now, too. A university that is perceived not to have handled the pandemic well, and has therefore taken a reputational hit, could find that it has challenges in engaging with a wide range of groups in the future. This may then feed into how it is are perceived reputationally in rankings.

These are all trends that we will be looking to explore in the future. In the meantime, the World 100 Reputation Network’s annual tracker symposium this month will be an excellent opportunity to hear directly from current members on how they have been using this more detailed approach to understanding reputation.

The World 100 Tracker Symposium, aimed at UK universities in the top 200 of the World University Rankings, will take place virtually on 20 January. Register free here.

Duncan Ross is chief data officer at Times Higher Education.

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