Academics whose opinions are canvassed for world university rankings are sceptical of the methodologies used and often don’t make evidence-based decisions when nominating the best universities, according to new research by the World 100 Reputation Network.

The research, which surveyed more than 800 academics and senior staff at global universities, found academics name the best five universities in their field based on active research, but beyond that nominate the same handful of ‘super brands’. They also looked back at rankings rather than researching the best universities when filling in reputation surveys.

Since several of the most well-known rankings, including THE, and QS base a significant proportion of their findings on reputation surveys of university staff, The World 100 Reputation Network undertook the research to help universities understand how reputation is formed and how their academics influence the rankings.

The survey also found respondents unable to assess the quality of teaching in other institutions without direct personal experience, even though their views on teaching form a substantial part of some world rankings. There was little evidence of co-ordinated influence, but many believe their university needs to be more proactive in how they influence other academics, to in turn improve their ranking.

The World 100 survey found that academics become aware of other universities via high-quality research papers, key conferences, collaborative research projects and visiting academics from other universities. International personal contacts are therefore critical.

Louise Simpson, Director of the World 100 Reputation Network said:

“We found that academics had little understanding of the important role played by reputation surveys in many of the key world university rankings. They often neglected to fill in surveys sent to them, but at the same time used rankings to judge their own progress and that of others.

“Whilst academics are influential as individuals, they feel reluctant to invest in activities that might promote their own universities, and create more evidence-based rankings. Their own confessed behaviours suggest rankings have a high degree of circularity built into them and it is hard to topple a university that establishes itself at the top.”

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