The reputation of a university is increasingly being understood as an amalgamation of the perceptions of groups of key stakeholders. And one audience that has come to the fore during the Covid-19 has been the general public who have been exposed to universities in unprecedented ways as scientists and researchers have been in the media spotlight.

This audience was one of the focuses of the World 100 Network annual research project, just published, which set out to understand whether the high profile of academic faculty during the pandemic has led to institution reputational benefit.

Too nebulous a concept?

The general public are an interesting audience for universities. For many years, when I asked academic colleagues about the audiences they wanted to reach and they identified the public, I would encourage them to focus instead on more discrete groups. The public always felt too much of a nebulous concept, and one that was difficult to influence.

However, the nature of societal discourse during the pandemic, and in particular the need to communicate clear public messages about public behaviour to influence the spread of disease, has changed things.

On nearly every news broadcast, and widely through print and social media channels, universities have been front and centre as the different episodes of the pandemic have played out. Our academic faculty are some of the most trusted figures, and the results of university research – particularly the development of vaccines – have been exposed as never before to the public.

Aside from the pandemic, the role of the public in influencing political decisions that affect universities has also become increasingly important in recent years. Access to the right level of public funding is influenced by the level of support that universities have amongst the voting population. And free speech issues have become increasingly part of a wider public dialogue.

So, it has become clear that universities do need to think about how they are perceived by this particular audience. And the pandemic-driven issues meant that when considering key audiences to survey for the W100 reputation project.

The challenge of surveying the public

Surveying the public is both challenging – the sheer scale, how to achieve representative samples – but also achievable, as polling companies have developed methodologies for reaching large numbers and representing the population as a whole.

For this study, we identified six countries with a number of W100 member universities and worked with the global polling company Kantar to survey 1000 adults in each jurisdiction. As a side note, there really is no way of surveying the global general public, so amalgamating samples from a number of different countries gives us the best picture.

The methodology employed by the polling company meant that we could compare results across different demographic categories, as well as between countries.

The next challenge was determining the right questions to ask. For cost purposes, we were limited to two questions. And they had to be phrased in a way that a large group of people, many of whom may not have had a good understanding of universities, could understand and respond to.

We chose to focus on the public’s view on the importance of universities in helping the world through the pandemic; and whether they associated academics in the media with their institutions.

Reputation Opportunity: . The results by country did not show huge variations in responses

What the public told us

The full details of the research are available to members of the World 100 Reputation Network: for more details about how to join, click here.

What we found is that universities have had a much lower impact on the general public during the pandemic than for other key audiences – notably prospective international students.

This is unsurprising in itself, given that it is inevitable that a proportion of the general population in any country will have started the pandemic with low levels of engagement with and understanding standing of universities.

However, it is clear from our research that, despite the profile of university academics in public health messaging and the role played by institutions in developing vaccines and treatments, a significant proportion of the general population are yet to register the impact of universities.

We also found that large proportions of the public in most countries surveyed had not noticed academics commenting on the pandemic, and the majority did not associate professors with their host institution.

Universities and the general public – the future

We conclude in the report that universities should continue to focus on public outreach work as a priority in institutional communications strategies in order to grow their reputations and to build wider support for Higher Education. It will be more important than ever, post-pandemic, to ensure that local communities support and understand the positive role universities play.

There is a particular opportunity for universities to involve academics with a high profile during the pandemic in public-facing campaigns and engagement work.

There have been some great examples of World 100 member universities doing this during the pandemic, for example of the University of Toronto and University of Sydney.

It will be particularly interesting to repeat this research with the general public in the future once – as we all hope – the pandemic is no longer at the top of the agenda. The W100 report also covers examples of annual public polling undertaken by market research agencies such as Ipsos MORI on trust in professions which will interesting to watch.

Polling the public will continue to provide universities with important intelligence around perceptions of their impact.