Beyond the 'super-brands' universities are strengthening their positions

January 1, 1990

Outside the legion of ‘super-brands’ that occupies the top of the table, a number of players are strengthening their positions, Phil Baty discovers

An elite group of six global “super-brands” has widened its lead over the rest of the world’s top universities in the third edition of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.

The Anglo-American sextet – ­Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford University – stand significantly ahead of the rest of the pack in the annual top 100 list.

A stark gap between the top six and the seventh-placed institution was identified in the inaugural reputation rankings in 2011, and while individual positions within the legion of super-brands have changed since then, the gap between that group and the rest has widened each year – from 32 points in 2011 to 34.4 points in 2013 (see methodology).

“We shouldn’t be surprised that the most highly regarded universities don’t change over time, as reputation is reflective in higher education, much more so than fast-moving consumer goods or Hollywood,” says Louise Simpson, director of the World 100 Reputation Network of top-ranked universities.

“Reputation is like a supertanker: it’s pretty hard to turn around unless you do something very wrong…Those six über-universities are the ones ­people want to believe are the best: they are well visited, very rich and beautiful to look at.”

Such stellar reputation results, she adds, can transcend hard data.

“The top six universities are like the most beautiful cities in the world, reputable even if they have failing ­sewers, arrogant mayors and dodgy no-go areas,” Simpson says.

“A folklore builds up around them, as do money and fans. Even ­academics, who prefer citations as evidence of ­academic excellence, want to work at a university that leverages its own ­personal brand by attracting top ­donations and prestigious partners.”

Reputation is clearly a subjective indicator, but it is one that has real-world impact, says Mark Sudbury, director of communications at University College London.

“Reputation is becoming less of a nebulous concept for universities: often seen in the past as merely a reflection of historical influence that can’t be affected in the short term, it is now recognised as a key component in decisions affecting future success,” he says. “It really does matter what key audience groups think and are saying about universities, as it affects their ability to access funding at a strategic level and to recruit and retain the best students and staff.”

A recent study for the World 100 Reputation Network found that institutional reputation was the number one factor for international academic staff changing jobs. And research by overseas student recruitment agency IDP found that more students named the “international ranking/reputation” of a university as the most important ­consideration in choosing where to study than any other factor.

“In an increasingly competitive and global environment, reputation is also becoming central to the ability of institutions to engage in the best collaborations and partnerships,” says Sudbury. “Understanding your audiences and playing to your strengths has never been more important.”

As in previous reputation ­rankings, the US dominates the 2013 list, taking seven of the top 10 places, 28 of the top 50 and 43 of the top 100.

Although the US has two fewer institutions in the top 50 compared with 2012 and one fewer in the top 100, in general the nation has maintained a firm grip on the table, despite inter­national concerns over serious funding cuts at its leading state institutions.

Of the US ­institutions that were in the top 50 last year, 12 have fallen, eight have held their ground (including Harvard in first place, MIT in second and Berkeley in fifth) and 10 have improved their positions.

One of the big US stars in this year’s reputation rankings is New York Univer­sity. NYU sat in the 51-60 band in 2011, rose to 34th position in 2012 and now occupies 29th place in a ­generally stable league table.

NYU’s rise from what its president John Sexton calls “a good regional school” to a “top-tier research university” is down to two key factors.

First and foremost, says Sexton, is a renewed focus on academic staff.

“The quality of a university’s faculty is the single most important determinant of the quality of the research and education it provides,” he argues. “Across its schools, NYU focused on attracting and retaining the very best faculty – scholars who, in addition to being at the forefront of their disciplines, are entrepreneurial and ambitious; who want their work to have broad impact; and who are committed to sharing the excitement of discovery with their students.”

The strategy seems to have worked: among NYU’s faculty are three Nobel laureates and three winners of the Abel Prize for mathematics recognised since 2001.

The second factor is the establishment of NYU as a “global network university” from its base in perhaps the world’s most international city.

Sexton is at pains to point out that NYU – which now has 13 “global academic centers” across six continents – is not a traditional branch campus system or a “hub-and-spoke” set-up: “It is, rather, a circulatory system wherein faculty and students can move among university sites easily and with confidence that academic and research quality is maintained throughout the system.”

This global network of sites is key to attracting and retaining talent from all over the world, says Sexton, “and our more prominent global presence also enables NYU to build new scholarly relationships that have the effect of enabling the university to be better recognised and appreciated”.

The UK has lost ground in the reputation rankings over time – perhaps an indication of how the world has perceived the country’s radical funding reforms and visa clampdown.

The UK remains the second most highly represented country in the top 100, with nine institutions featured, but it has lost one representative from the list this year (the University of Leeds) after losing two (the University of Sheffield and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) in 2012.

But despite these blows, the UK’s remaining top 100 institutions have generally consolidated their ­stellar reputations.

The University of Cambridge has maintained its place as third in the world, while the University of Oxford has risen two places to fourth.

Although Imperial College London has slipped one place to joint 14th, other UK institutions have improved their positions: University College London (21st to joint 20th), the London School of ­Economics (29th to 25th), the University of Edinburgh (49th to 46th) and the University of ­Manchester (up from 51-60 to 47th).

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany has gained a new top 100 player, Freie Univer­sität Berlin, which has entered the 91-100 group. This takes the ­country’s tally to five.

France, meanwhile, has four representatives, two of which have risen up the table (École Polytechnique and Univer­sité Pierre et Marie Curie).

However, the outstanding national success story of the 2013 World Reputation Rankings is Australia. The country has two new entrants in the top 100 – Monash Univer­sity (which joins the 91-100 band) and the University of New South Wales (which jumps straight into the 81-90 group) – taking its total number to six. Moreover, all of Australia’s top 50 institutions have been making steady progress over the years.

The University of Melbourne entered the top 40 in 2013, moving from joint 45th in 2011 to 43rd in 2012 and 39th this year. The Australian National University has risen to joint 42nd from outside the top 50 in 2011.

Ed Byrne, president of Monash, attributes his institution’s advent in the top 100 to the same two factors cited by NYU’s Sexton: faculty and inter­nationalisation.

Byrne says that there has been a programme of “academic strengthening across the institution” aimed at helping it to penetrate the global top 50 as well as strong performance management and targeted recruitment schemes.

It also has a “very proactive international strategy”, he says. Monash has developed research-intensive campuses in India (doctorates only) and China (master’s and PhDs), “giving access to material and people resources that would not be possible in Australia alone and fully engaging with the Asian century”, Byrne says.

Monash has also developed a deep strategic alliance with the UK’s Univer­sity of Warwick.

“These initiatives are turning Monash from an Australian university with branch campuses to a global ­university with its main base in Australia, ideally suited for a world where in research and education at the ­university level, national boundaries are less ­relevant,” Byrne adds.

As for Australia’s rise in the ­repu­tation rankings, geography and institutional autonomy have been key, the president says.

“Australian universities have become entrepreneurial institutions with early major engagement in Asia…after cutbacks in government funding over a decade ago, federal encouragement to develop new or expanded ­markets in Asia was warmly embraced by the sector,” he says.

“This, coupled with a high degree of university autonomy, has enabled a rather staid sector to become very vibrant and paved the way for strong research links with Asia that complement those with the US and Europe.”

Byrne adds: “Australia is ideally situated between the rising academic powerhouses of Asia and the established centres in the old West…I anticipate a bright future.”

As they have done in the overall Times Higher Education World University Rankings, many Asian institutions have risen up the global reputation tables, too.

Although China’s two top 100 institutions have both slipped a little, Hong Kong has performed solidly and ­Taiwan, Singapore and the Republic of Korea have strengthened their positions.

The University of Hong Kong has moved steadily up the rankings (from 42nd in 2011 and equal 39th in 2012 to 36th this year), while Hong Kong’s other top 100 institutions have maintained their standings.

The Republic of Korea’s two top 100 players have both significantly improved their position: the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has moved from the 91-100 band in 2011 to 61-70 this year; and Seoul National University has risen from the 51-60 group to 41st place.

National Taiwan University, ­Taiwan’s sole representative in the top 100 table, has entered the 51-60 group this year, having been a member of the 61-70 band in 2012 and the 81-90 list in 2011.

There are similar successes for ­Singapore, with both its top 100 ­representatives ascending the table.

The National University of Singapore has risen from 27th in 2011 to 22nd. And Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has risen consistently over the three years of the reputation ­exercise – from 91-100 to 81-90 to 71-80.

Asked to explain its steady improvement, NTU’s president Bertil Andersson describes a list of attributes: “We are part of the vibrant Singaporean higher education system; we are one of the world’s most international univer­sities…which creates an exciting intellectual environment; and we are committed to taking discovery to innovation through patents, spin-offs and, especially, through collaboration with some of the world’s leading ­technological companies.”

“How does this affect our reputational ranking? In terms of the more intangible ‘soft’ indicator of reputation, this is more difficult to measure and is out of our hands – reputation is what others think of us rather than how we look at ourselves.”

He adds: “As one of our recent senior recruits from Cambridge said, she has chosen ‘youth’. NTU cannot build on past glories – we have to ­create our reputation now. That is a new and exciting challenge. We have much to do and are far from perfect, but the important factor is the progress we are making in the eyes of our peers.”

Phil Baty is the Times Higher Education World University Rankings editor

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