Five things I learned about reputation from being a parent of a prospective student - Mark Sudbury, Head of The World 100

Having recently supported my son through the process of applying to study at university (in the UK), I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts on how reputation played out for me as a particular stakeholder – a parent. This is specifically a UK-focused piece, so inevitably reflects some of the particularities of one country’s application process.


1. Reputation is the starting point if not the ultimate deciding choice factor

When my son started thinking about where he might want to study, he already knew – and not because I’d told him – which were considered to be the ‘best’ universities. There were some clear markers for determining which universities fell into this category– the ‘superbrand’ institutions, the Russell Group, and – of course – the rankings. I was surprised to walk in one day on my son and friend when they were about 15 years old looking up where a particular university featured in one of the league tables.

When I became involved, at a much later stage, in helping to narrow down potential choices, I was constantly aware that my own perceptions of the reputation of universities were very difficult to ignore in favour of more rigourous interrogation of the other key factors. Hopefully, I was aware enough to move beyond these prejudices, but I remain sure that there were probably really good opportunities that I overlooked at other institutions.

The other clear marker of reputation which quickly emerged was the entry requirements for each course. It was interesting to see that several universities not in the Russell Group emerged as prospects partly because their tariffs were set at a level that marked them out as very competitive. Research done through the World 100 Reputation Tracker, as well as many other studies, tends to place reputation as a top 5 factor, but rarely at the very top. My experience was that, once we’d narrowed down the field, the other key factors around the course, quality of education and location came into sharper focus. But the initial ‘sorting’ was very much driven by reputation.


2. It’s still hard to differentiate between universities

My son had a really clear idea as to which subject he wanted to study – which was very helpful. And so our search was narrowed down from the start to universities offering that particular course – and of course through the reputation filter mentioned above. We are then launched into the world of university marketing collateral – websites, some printed prospectuses picked up from a UCAS fair, a bit of social media (although neither of us are on some of the platforms universities are increasingly using to target Gen Z).

It’s quite clear that most universities continue to say very much the same things as each other – world leading, solving the great problems, educating global citizens. The use of imagery also remains very consistent – although a few universities did stand out for focusing on the unique elements of their local environment.

Even at the subject level, most institutions were struggling to tell a unique story. Most had a narrative around why the particular subject area was attractive, but failed to really nail what would be different about studying it in this specific department. The use of content to highlight individual ‘star’ academics and the impact of research, particularly at the departmental level, was strikingly limited. There is a real opportunity here for universities to do more to differentiate themselves –as highlighted in last year’s W100 Research Project, which showed that prospective students do pay attention to research.


3. Less prestigious universities try really hard – some ‘top’ ones really don’t

There was no doubt that the universities who did a much better job at selling themselves as potential study destinations were those with less strong reputations. Design, imagery, ease of navigation and coherent messaging stood out at a smaller number of less prestigious institutions. Some –but not all- of the very top ranked universities gave a distinct sense that they really weren’t trying too hard.

Now, I really do understand the environment and the particular pressure on admissions teams at the most selective universities. They are attracting a very large number of applications from extremely well qualified students from around the world. And they have limited resources and need to put in place realistic decision-making processes. But can it be right that two of the UK’s leading universities took more than seven months to make a decision on an application with absolutely no communication with the applicant until the very end (and a week before A Level exams started)?

They can, of course hide behind the UCAS process. But there is also something else at stake here form a reputational perspective. Applicants for UG courses may also be potential postgraduates – so it surely makes sense leave a positive impression with high-performing students, even if you have to turn them down at this stage.


4. Variation of messaging at Open Days

We attended a wide variety of open days, mostly in person but also accessing some virtual material. There was a huge variation in experience at different institutions and also between activity organised centrally by the university and by faculties / departments. The best experiences were at institutions that had thought through the best ways of engaging students and parents as two groups. Lumping everyone in together was generally not positive (including taster lectures where parents in a couple of cases parents were allowed to grandstand during Q&As).

Another differentiator was around how student ambassadors were used. Where they were actively engaging with students and parents, rather than just holding wayfaring signs and chatting to each other, that spoke volumes.

One other reputational observation concerns the consistency of messaging between university-wide and departmental content. Some departments seemed almost too keen to differentiate themselves from corporate messaging. Where it worked best is where departments were amplifying the big-picture messaging and adding in detail to really bring the sense of experience to life.


5. Crisis? What crisis?

Sector reputation has, if you follow the news, experienced many challenges in the past year. Freedom of speech, government focus on so-called low quality degrees, strikes, mental health crises, cost of living issues and the marking boycott have all featured prominently.

But in my journey through the student recruitment process, there was virtually no mention by universities of any of these issues, perhaps with the exception of a strong general focus on student support; and also a pointed question from a parent at an Open Day about the financial challenges facing that particular university.

There is a fine line to maintain between accentuating the positives and addressing the genuine concerns that students and parent might have about the impact of sector issues on their experience. I, for one however, would have welcomed universities using the opportunity to de-bunk some of the media myths.

It’s worth noting that the impact of sector challenges hasn’t seemed to have a major impact on recruitment in recent years. However, we are beginning to see through the W100 Tracker project that this may be changing – prospective student scores for reputation were down across the board this year. So universities need to keep thinking hard about telling a positive story about the sector as well as themselves.



I encountered a few surprises in my journey through the engagement process with universities, but many of the reputational challenges and opportunities were familiar:

*Institutions need to continue to work hard on differentiation – and to recognise that messaging to stakeholders groups needs different approaches.

*Building content around research achievements and star academics into student recruitment messaging is an open goal waiting to be scored.

*Two-way engagement is vital at all stages of the process, not just getting it right at Open Days. And that applies to institutions at all levels.