The University Reputation Iceberg: What Lies Beneath?

Last month’s Building Universities Reputation forum went under the banner of a piece of artwork that couldn’t have been more apt: an image of an almost fully submerged iceberg.

This visualisation was commented on throughout the conference, as a fitting reflection of the vast amounts of unseen work that go into building university reputation, beneath the relatively small yet all-important tip of the iceberg.

What goes into university reputation building?

Juan Manuel Mora, vice president of communications at the Universidad de Navarra, dwelled on the iceberg image in greater depth (excuse the pun…). In his schema, the tip represents university reputation, image and – “the highest echelon of good reputation” – authority.

But beneath the metaphorical waters is where all the real work occurs. At the very foundation of university reputation is institutional identity. This must be translated into consistent internal communications and organisational culture, and then into conversations and relationships with various stakeholders, including students, parents, employers, funders, research bodies, government agencies – anyone with whom the university has a direct channel of communication.

From all this emerges the tip – those aspects of university reputation which lie within the public domain, and which constitute such a valuable part of the institution’s intangible assets.

Key challenges and opportunities for HEIs

As attendees at the inaugural Building Universities Reputation conference were well aware, this issue is indeed glacier-sized. Various pressures relating to internationalisation, funding and massification mean reputation building is increasingly high on the agenda. In this context, several challenges and opportunities recurred as key themes throughout the event:

1. The challenge of distinctiveness

The foundation of reputation building is strong institutional identity, and here the key challenge is achieving distinctiveness. As many speakers noted, today’s comprehensive universities are stretched in many directions, striving to achieve multiple forms of excellence – research, teaching, vocational preparation, knowledge transfer – and to meet the demands of multiple audiences.

As Anna Myers, author of the 2012 report Distinctiveness in Higher Education, pointed out, the toughest stage in developing a distinctive identity is being brave enough to focus on just a few core elements and values. Within the recommendations put forward in the Distinct Framework, HEIs are advised to select a “distinctive blend of attributes”, based on consultation with members of the current university community.

These attributes should meet the ‘3 Rs’ test: Real (authentic, grounded in reality), Rare (worth highlighting), Relevant (meaningful for the target audience). And they must be a good fit for both internal and external audiences.

2. The importance of consistency

This leads into the next essential step – ensuring that institutional identity is reflected in every aspect of communications and behaviour across the organisation. Throughout the forum, speakers highlighted the importance of achieving “internal buy-in” for the institution’s core values and vision, and ensuring these are genuinely lived out and experienced by those within the university community.

The significance of this is difficult to understate. Earlier this year, I ran a series of focus groups with prospective students, and many spoke of instances in which just one adverse experience – a negative encounter with a university employee, or a bad review left by a past student – had been enough to mar an otherwise unblemished image of an institution.

And essentially, those within the university community have the potential to be your strongest brand ambassadors. Get their buy-in and equip them with the right narratives, and they could become the most effective members of your marketing team. Yet in many cases this opportunity is lost – either because of a mismatch between real experience and official vision, or because of a failure to internally communicate the university’s “distinctive blend of attributes”.

3. The opportunity for collaboration

Can reputation building provide stimulus not just for heightened competition, but also for strengthened collaboration? The launch of the Building Universities Reputation series in itself suggests the answer here is “yes”. There are plans for the forum to reconvene every two years, with related research projects during the intervening periods.

Other existing initiatives – including membership schemes such as the World 100 Reputation Network – are further signs of a strong appetite for collaboration on reputation building in the sector. The British Council’s Liz Dempsey spoke about the growth of research partnerships in this context, arguing that “co-authorship is co-branding at the highest level”. And even rankings, it was suggested, could have a role to play in facilitating collaboration, by helping institutions identify partners with similar strengths and resources.

What next for this debate?

While reputation building is certainly not a new issue, the conversation about university reputation is really only just getting going. The past decade has seen the issue evolve dramatically, not least due to the development and rapid popularisation of international university rankings. If today’s hot topics are distinctiveness, consistency and collaboration, what key factors will be driving the university reputation debate a decade from now?

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