Geopolitical tensions and freedom of speech issues are testing universities the world over. To successfully manage their reputations, they must avoid getting distracted by all the noise, says Mark Sudbury

The past year has thrown up many challenges for universities and confirmed the importance of building and protecting reputation as a strategic priority for institutions at all levels of the global academy.

The launch of the latest edition of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, reflecting the views of thousands of academics around the world, opens a window on some of the trends in the global profile of institutions and provides an opportunity to reflect on the key challenges.

The continuing rise in the international prominence of China’s leading universities is exemplified by Tsinghua University climbing one place to 8th and Peking University ascending two places to 11th in the latest table, which reflects the votes of about 38,000 published global academics.

The other top spots remain static this year, with Harvard University once again leading the way – reflecting the continuing sense that strong reputations are enduring despite challenges faced in any one year. (The latest edition is based on a survey carried out between October 2022 and January 2023 and predates the instatement and subsequent departure of Claudine Gay as president).

European universities continue to prosper in the World Reputation Rankings, with the Technical University of Munich and Delft University of Technology both improving their positions within the top 50, and French institutions maintaining their upward trajectories following recent mergers.

Another clear trend is the emergence of several universities in the Middle East among the leading 200 institutions. Abu Dhabi University is one of three institutions in the United Arab Emirates to enter the ranking for the first time this year, alongside two new Saudi institutions and one from Kuwait.

As some institutions rise, others inevitably fall, and Australian universities performed noticeably less well this year, with five of its six institutions declining.

Reputation challenges

Throughout my many years of working with universities around the world through the World 100 Reputation Network, reputation has always been a double-edged sword for institutions. While institutional focus is often, rightly, on building a profile with key audiences, reputational challenges also have to be reckoned with – and more so in periods of global change and uncertainty.

Many universities have been struggling recently with the challenges thrown up by geopolitical issues, notably around the Russia-Ukraine war, China-West tensions and, most recently, the situation in Israel and Palestine.

Most prominently, leading US universities have come under huge reputational pressure around freedom of speech issues, ultimately leading to the departure of presidents at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

These developments have highlighted the potential impact of the involvement of a broad range of stakeholders in universities, including governments and other political figures, alumni and governing body representatives. Managing reputation with these groups alongside their staff and student communities has never been more challenging, and universities need to work hard at their engagement strategies.

While there are no easy answers, some universities are taking a proactive approach to the challenge of freedom of speech on campus, with UCL’s Disagreeing Well campaign a particularly promising example.

Country-level reputation

The role of governments in university activities is also reflected in another theme of the year – the growing importance of country reputation, particularly when it comes to student recruitment.

In a number of countries, new government regulations around immigration are having an increasing influence on how prospective international students and their advisers view universities.

The UK government recently announced a review of post-study work visas, which allow overseas graduates to stay and work for two years after completing a course. This followed another measure aimed at cutting immigration: banning international students from bringing dependants with them to the UK.

Universities have indicated that they have already seen a dip in applications from countries such as Nigeria following the changes on dependants.

Australia’s new migration strategy saw the federal government rescinding the extensions to post-study work rights it announced only 15 months ago while slashing the age limit for temporary graduate visa applicants and increasing minimum English language requirements.

The recent election in the Netherlands has raised concerns that the country, long a leader in attracting students from around the world, has passed the high water mark of internationalisation, with potential limits to future growth.

Even in Canada, often seen as the most competitive country in the international recruitment market, the federal government has recently introduced new measures that could affect its appeal globally.

All of these measures are likely to require a renewed focus from universities individually and collectively to contextualise their messaging to potential international recruits.

Making the case for universities

The challenging political and economic circumstances facing universities around the world means that they will have to work even harder to build their reputations with key audience groups and to prove their relevance to society.

Universities have great stories to tell. Over the next year, they will need to avoid getting distracted by all the noise and to get their messages out in a targeted way that reflects the mutual interests of all relevant parties.

Mark Sudbury