The Times Higher Education annual reputation rankings are out and once again, North American research powerhouses like Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford dominate the top spots. The UK holds its own with the twin titans of Oxbridge sitting comfortably in the top ten, while a smattering of London institutions (UCL, LSE, King’s and Imperial) feature well among the top 30. For a country of the UK’s relatively small size and resources this is an achievement to be proud of.
Talk of ‘reputation’ and ‘brand’ does not always go down well in academic circles. Many purists understandably fear that placing undue attention on identity does little to support the education and research their institution exists for in the first place. In some circumstances these fears could be justified. Tactical work to enhance a reputation based on consumerist brand building-principles is undoubtedly being carried out at many institutions. In some cases it may be delivering short term student recruitment returns. However, this superficial approach is unlikely to reap the long term rewards of that built around a more profound appreciation of relationship with all members (and potential members) of an institution’s academic community.
Put very simply, cultivating recognition of an authentic rather than imposed academic identity does more reputational good than any quick hit marketing campaign. This type of work needs to start at home by engaging with academics, other staff and students in such a way that their behaviour both contributes to and is informed by the institution’s values. A recent THE profile of California Institute of Technology (Caltech – 9th in the reputation rankings) shows a good example of this in practice.
Caltech’s flat management system, culture of shared resources and support for early career researchers are just three factors that encourage the idea of a small, close knit, inter-disciplinary academic community engaged in a shared endeavour. Operational systems built around the inherent virtues of the institution, encouraging behaviour that perpetuates these virtues. This is a long way from emblazoning a new logo on some expensive marketing collateral.
Of course, no institution should expect the qualities fostered by this level of internal engagement to be self-evident from the outside, but careful thought needs to be put into who recognition is being sought from and for what purpose. An authentic, distinct reputation offers strong returns when articulated appropriately for a particular audience in the most impactful channels. For instance, first-hand accounts, given at academic conferences, of research excellence being achieved thanks to a particular environment may not be the best way of recruiting school leavers onto undergraduate courses. Likewise, mainstream press features on learning support facilities may not be the most effective way of reaching out to new faculty members.
So, reputation matters, but it has to be authentic. It needs to be built around the actual values academics and students recognise in their institution, and nurtured by an architecture of internal systems that encourages behaviour that further perpetuates these values. Alongside this, the realisation of those values needs to be expressed in ways that recognise particular audiences and the influence each can have on an institution’s continued success.
The UK has no shortage of excellent institutions just itching to win the recognition that would push them up future rankings. Taking on board these principles could help them meet these ambitions.