Birds? Planes? No, colossal 'super-brands': Top Six Universities

At the apex of the reputation rankings are six US and UK universities that have become household names. But esteem cannot be faked, and what goes up can come down. Phil Baty reports

For a chosen few, life is sweet. Clear evidence of an elite Anglo-American cadre of six global university "super-brands" has emerged from the second annual Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, which are based on a worldwide opinion poll of more than 17,500 academics.

The six occupy what one expert describes as "a special zone beyond ordinary competition", riding well ahead of the chasing pack and reaping the multiple rewards associated with being the world's best in teaching and research.

The group is headed by Harvard University, followed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Cambridge, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Oxford (see page 9).

The gap between the top six and the rest, led by seventh-placed Princeton University, is marked - and has widened since last year.

"The existence of super-brands is no surprise," says Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne. Although the reputation rankings are based on the informed opinion of senior academics, Marginson says that some "household-name" institutions can transcend direct sector knowledge and hard performance data.

"A stellar reputation of the kind enjoyed by Harvard or Oxford, which sustains those institutions at the centre of the social fabric, like the Church in medieval times, places them in a special zone beyond ordinary competition," says Marginson. "It is hardly objective or fair, but it is real and cannot be wished away."

And the privileges afforded to those with such exalted roles are manifold.

Louise Simpson, director of the World 100 Reputation Network, a group of top-ranked universities, says: "The higher your reputation, the more likely you are as an institution to attract funding and partners of choice [see page 22].

"Prestigious donors like to give to prestigious universities�Better reputation allows an organisation to win contracts on more favourable terms, and, of course, to charge more."

In today's highly competitive market for globally mobile students, external reputation is often the number one driver of student choice (above and beyond course content) - with the brand on the degree certificate alone helping to mark graduates for future leadership roles.

But while a stellar reputation bestows many advantages that are not necessarily fair, it needs to be earned and can be won or lost, says Marginson.

"Some aspects of reputation are untouched by objective trends in performance," he says, "for example, the 'halo' effects of a rising nation.

"However, we can assume that in the long term a university cannot sustain a high reputation � and certainly not a super-brand position - unless research quantity and quality, faculty hiring and demand from high-calibre students are in reality very strong."

He adds: "In this sector, reputation can be affected by marketing, rumour and factors from outside the sector, but it cannot be faked.

"The longer the time span, the more the objective fundamentals of performance will shape relationships and encounters with the institutions, and this will feed into reputation."

This objectivity can be glimpsed in the rankings' stability (admittedly based on only two years of data): there is little difference between last year's results, based on 13,388 survey responses, and this year's, based on an entirely new sample of 17,554 scholars. The only change within the top six is that Stanford, up one place to fourth, has swapped places with its public counterpart in the Golden State, the University of California, Berkeley, down one to fifth.

Berkeley's small slip could be the first sign that well-publicised funding cuts at the elite Californian institution are starting to damage its image among scholars.

"Berkeley's place in the pantheon is not guaranteed long term because of the spreading perception that the University of California institutions are in budget trouble," says Marginson.

Claire Holmes, associate vice-chancellor for public affairs at Berkeley, says that the university is a deserved member of the elite "because beyond the high calibre of its faculty and students, the institution's research and education enterprises are characterised by an extraordinary degree of quality, breadth and depth".

Berkeley is firmly connected to the real world, she adds: "Rather than the ivory tower, the Berkeley campus has long attracted an incredibly diverse array of socially conscious individuals who seek to make the world a better place�?the campus remains an essential gateway to the American dream for individuals from underprivileged backgrounds."

Holmes accepts that the university faces "obvious challenges" during an era in which state funding has shrunk to about 11 per cent of Berkeley's operating budget: if left unaddressed, she says, the cuts "could imperil our access and excellence".

But she adds that the university has a clear strategy to weather the storm: "Costs have been contained, our alumni are providing philanthropy at unprecedented levels and other revenue streams are allowing the campus to fend off current threats in a manner that is consistent with our public character."

However the great US public universities cope with the cuts, they have little scope to stop financial pressures negatively affecting how they are perceived in the global scholarly community, it seems.

Indeed, a number of University of California research institutions and several other prominent US public universities have lost ground in the reputation rankings this year.

While UC Los Angeles bucks the trend with a rise of three places, UC San Diego falls six places to 36th and UC Davis drops six places to joint 44th.

Other major US state universities to suffer declines include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (down two places to joint 23rd), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (down two to 27th), the University of Washington (down two to 28th) and the University of Texas at Austin (down one to 32nd).

"It is widely understood within higher education circles that the effects of budget cuts in the US are deep and might be lasting," says Marginson.

Overall, as with the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-12, the US dominates the reputation tables, with 44 institutions in the top 100. The UK has 10 representatives, followed by Japan and the Netherlands with five each.

Several UK institutions have lost ground in the rankings. While Cambridge and Oxford maintain their super-brand positions, Imperial College London has dropped two places to 13th and University College London has also fallen two places, slipping out of the world top 20. The University of Edinburgh has fallen four places to 49th while the University of Bristol has exited the 81-90 band to join the 91-100 group.

A stand-out exception is the London School of Economics, which has risen eight places to 29th. Its impressive performance comes in spite of a major global media furore over the institution's links to the regime of the now deposed and deceased dictator of Libya, Mu'ammer Gaddafi - links that forced the resignation of Sir Howard Davies, the LSE's director, just days before the reputation survey got under way.

Robin Hoggard, director of external relations at the LSE, says: "We are gratified to see the LSE is now in the top 30, but we would not claim to be able to explain it. Certainly, LSE's links with Libya do not seem to have weighed much in the views of academic peers."

He adds: "We do a lot that we think pays dividends in [terms of] reputation. A first principle is that academic excellence in research and teaching is key. No amount of gloss or PR puffery can change that and we don't try - so we see our success in the 2008 research assessment exercise as fundamental to our reputation, and the research excellence framework in 2014 will be equally so.

"Beyond that, we do try - hard - to help our academics reach wider audiences in governments, businesses, international organisations, charities and so on."

From making research outputs accessible to lay readers to filming academics at work, from providing public lectures to maintaining contact with more than 100,000 alumni worldwide, the LSE hopes, says Hoggard, "that the enduring value of our research, teaching and engagement will remain apparent".

The reputation rankings represent good news for Australia. Its top-ranked institution is the University of Melbourne, which rises to 43rd place. Close behind is the Australian National University, which jumps from the 51-60 band in the 2011 reputation rankings to joint 44th this year. And the University of Sydney enters the world top 50 from the 51-60 band.

Japan is another outstanding performer and the only country to break the Anglo-North American dominance of the top 20: Asia's number one higher education institution, the University of Tokyo, remains in eighth place, while Kyoto University is 20th.

For Suzuka Sakashita, director of the Office for International Planning in Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology, the nation's strong global reputation is based on three elements: a long history of support for academic freedom; a focus on international collaboration, integral to the country's "economic miracle" from the 1950s to the 1980s; and a "strong commitment by the government to universities", which has provided strategic cash to elite institutions in addition to core funding.

But Sakashita accepts that Japan cannot afford to be complacent. On the objective indicators used in the World University Rankings, it lags behind its competitors on the recruitment of international staff and students, and on international research collaboration.

But it has a project to attract 50,400 international students to 13 earmarked universities by 2020 and to offer more overseas experiences to domestic students. Japan's industrial leaders are firmly behind the project, Sakashita says, "as they expect the young generation with excellent international experiences to contribute to economic growth".

Japan heads a strong Asian showing in the reputation league. Mainland China's two representatives are both top-40 players: Tsinghua University has risen five places to take 30th place while Peking University made a similar leap to claim 38th spot. Hong Kong also stands out, with three institutions in the top 100, led by the University of Hong Kong (39th, up three places). Notably, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology jumps from the 91-100 band to the 61-70 group.

Singapore has two representatives in the rankings, led by the National University of Singapore in joint 23rd (up from 27th). Its showing is matched by the Republic of Korea, led by Seoul National University (51-60). The National Taiwan University has risen from the 81-90 group to the 61-70 band.

"Asian governments, in particular China, have embraced world-class university programmes and set explicit targets to improve their positions in global rankings," says Paul Benneworth, senior researcher at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente.

"These programmes have substantially increased the visibility of these universities to European and American academics, as well as arguably giving observers the impression that these governments 'get it' regarding the strategic importance of universities to national economies."

Asian institutions are actively recruiting Western scholars, and their research and their teaching both are improving and becoming more visible.

"At the same time, things don't look quite as impressive in the West," Benneworth says. "European and American higher education is going through a deep-seated bout of gloom, with academic leaders expressing dissatisfaction at poorly chosen and potentially extremely harmful national higher education policies."

As China invests and the West faces up to austerity, "fear of the future is leading [Western] academic leaders to take the threat from emerging Asian universities very seriously indeed", Benneworth adds.

And it would seem that this potential power shift is already starting to influence how universities are perceived by the global scholarly community