What does the pandemic mean for university reputation?

Communications experts at leading universities say Covid-19 could be ‘make or break’ for institutions’ prestige 

November 3, 2020
Source: Reuters

Browse the THE World Reputation Rankings 2020 results


When universities across the world were revealing plans to offer a blended teaching model for this academic year back in May, combining a mix of in-person and remote instruction, Canada’s McMaster University took a bold approach: it announced that classes for the entire autumn term would be online. In mid-September it stated that the same model would be taken for the winter 2021 term.

Many universities, particularly in the US and UK, have since rowed back on their initial plans to deliver elements of in-person teaching this semester due to concerns over rising coronavirus cases and student and staff safety.

But Andrea Farquhar, McMaster’s assistant vice-president of communications and public affairs, says the early, clear communication from her institution would benefit its reputation.  

“We were trying to be as stable as possible,” she says. “The whole thing is difficult for people. It’s hard to be online, it’s hard to not have a normal year, so we thought the last thing people need is for us to say: ‘You’re going to start here, oh hang on, now there are cases we have to close that building, now we have to do this, now you’re going online fully.’ We didn’t want that sort of instability or churn. In some ways we were being cautious, but we [also] didn’t want people to have the added stress.”

She adds that any changes in the number of Covid-19 cases will have far less impact on McMaster – which ranks in the 126-150 band in the THE World Reputation Rankings 2020 – than other institutions, as it will be able to “continue on the same path” of online-only instruction.

“All of this unknowing can happen around us, but [students and staff] will know what they’re doing, everyone’s prepared and we can just continue.”

Reputation has long been important for universities, and research suggests that an institution’s prestige is a key factor for students and academics when deciding where to study or work.

But as a global pandemic-driven recession tightens universities’ budgets and increases competition for students, as institutions shift to new methods of remote teaching, and as academics lead on developing a vaccine, will reputation matter more? And does the crisis expose universities to new reputational risks?

Farquhar says that “reputation is going to matter more than it ever has” for universities.

As well as focusing on stability and clear communication, McMaster, which is a world leader in health-related research and teaching, has emphasised the physical and mental health of students and staff, she says. For instance, the university is paying for international students’ accommodation and meals while they quarantine on campus.

“Every university is going to have cases. They just will. But it’s how we respond to those that I think people are going to be watching, and watching more carefully than ever,” she predicts.

Louise Simpson, director of the World 100 Reputation Network, a professional alliance for reputation managers in leading universities, agrees that university reputation “has to be seen as being more important” as a result of the pandemic, with the views of the general public in particular carrying more weight than previously.

“Traditionally, universities think about the audiences where the money matters – the students, the alumni, academics. But I think their relationship with society is going to be very important through Covid,” she says, referencing the interest in a Covid-19 vaccine and universities’ role in helping to “rebuild society” in the wake of a global recession.

She adds that Covid-19 has the potential to “shake up the reputational hierarchy” in global higher education, as success in delivering a strong online learning experience becomes more important.

“Is it going to matter whether you’ve been to Harvard, or is it going to matter more that you’ve got a good bioscience degree? It will be very interesting to see if this disturbs or perturbs the reputational environment,” she says.

“I think that’s an opportunity for the younger universities, the more modern universities, that have been really good at online and haven’t fully made the bricks-and-mortar investments that universities like Harvard and Cambridge have. Agility and the move to delivering things online is going to be much more important in the future, and that is bound to change the reputational hierarchy.”

zoom lecture

Alan Ferns, associate vice-president for external relations and reputation at the University of Manchester, which ranks joint 48th in the reputation rankings, up from the 51-60 band last year, says that the pandemic has reminded the sector that “it’s in moments like this that reputations can be enhanced or broken”.

“Even more importantly than long-term campaigns, how you respond to situations like this really influences how people see individual organisations and brands,” he says.

“You’ve only got to look at airlines, travel companies, supermarkets – some of them have come out of this with their reputations enhanced, others of them have come out of it with their reputations severely damaged.”

Ferns’ assessment is that UK universities have so far “had quite a good war”, as evidenced by their rapid shift to online teaching, clear communication with staff and students and huge contribution to Covid-19-related research. Even the A-levels fiasco in the UK, which caused chaos in university admissions, “reminded people of how much of an aspiration for many young people and families going to university is”, he says. “It’s still a big prize and a golden ticket.”

However, Ferns says that student and staff safety and the flexibility of teaching models as the pattern of the pandemic changes are now big challenges for institutions.

Ovidia Lim-Rajaram, chief communications officer at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which has held on to 24th place in the reputation rankings this year, says that the pandemic has “redefined reputation”. A university’s global outlook was a traditional marker of prestige but increasingly reputation relates to “whether a university has safety measures in place, whether the business model is resilient and whether there is diversity, reflecting the changing priorities of stakeholders in this time of crisis”, she says.

As such the reputational risks for universities centre on safety and crisis management, the quality of the learning experience and business continuity, she adds.

NUS arguably has an easier task of protecting its reputation than other institutions, given that it is the flagship university in a very small higher education system and home to Singapore’s only school of public health.

“The university is in a good place,” Lim-Rajaram acknowledges. “We’re resilient, we continue to be very well supported by the government, we continue to compete for funding for research.”

Figures from the World 100 Reputation Network also suggest that the pandemic is changing the way communications experts are seen and listened to in universities. A longitudinal survey of reputation professionals in 75 universities across 23 countries found that, in April, 73 per cent felt that they were more valued by their university since the start of the crisis. The trend has continued, with more than half of respondents to the latest wave of the study reporting feeling more valued in September compared with the previous month.

“They sometimes get quite a lot of flak in universities because academics don’t like communications and they get a bit uneasy about reputation management… But I think during a crisis [academics] step back and listen,” explains Simpson.

McMaster’s Farquhar agrees that communications and reputation management staff are “at the table in ways that they may not have been before”. That is partly because they have a “pan-university view” and are used to communicating with various university stakeholders, but they also bring a useful perspective on what is happening outside the institution “that we have to be understanding of or responsive to or leading on”, she says.

“It really is showing the importance and the value that they bring to the decision-making and the thinking within the institution and how they can support and ensure that their institutions come out of this stronger than they were,” she adds.

Farquhar says that interdisciplinary research and teaching programmes and microcredentials will become increasingly important for universities as they navigate and emerge from the crisis, and institutions may even need to consider reorganising “the whole tradition of the academic year”.

Spring and summer terms in Western institutions have historically been much quieter than the rest of the year but that may change as institutions look to provide a more flexible offer to students, she says.

Statue wearing face mask

Manchester’s Ferns says that for universities to emerge stronger after the crisis they must “quickly move on to building on what they’ve learned from this experience” of remote working and ensure that “nationally, regionally, internationally they’re central to building back” societies in terms of economic recovery.

In Manchester, the five universities in the city have been meeting weekly during the pandemic and working closely with the local NHS and mayor to help achieve this, he adds.

Simpson says that the “beacon strategy”, where institutions focus on a few areas of research rather than attempt to be good at everything, has risen as a trend in recent years and this will likely continue as universities devise strategies for surviving the pandemic.

“This is going to carry on being important because people can’t really hang on to more than a few things in their mind about what a university is good at and if you focus you’re more likely to win the big money, the big research grants to showcase your expertise, and you will then have the facilities to back that up as well,” she says.

However, she adds that strong research must be combined with strong communications and amplification of the research in order to provide a boost to reputation.

But Lim-Rajaram says it is important for universities not to get too hung up on their levels of prestige.

“It’s really not about building a reputation, it’s about addressing the urgent needs of the community,” she says.

“You’re in a crisis situation. You can’t be thinking: ‘Is this good for my reputation?’ At least for NUS, we are guided by helping to look for solutions. That’s really important because if we don’t do this, who will? Who else has the expertise?”



Print headline: Whose light will shine brightest after the pandemic?

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