The Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, now in their fourth year, were released this week. The invitation-only survey asks approximately 60,000 experienced scholars their academic opinion of institutions and is administered by Ipsos MediaCT.

The top 20 are:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  3. Stanford University
  4. University of Cambridge
  5. University of Oxford
  6. University of California, Berkeley
  7. Princeton University
  8. Yale University
  9. California Institute of Technology
  10. University of California, Los Angeles
  11. University of Tokyo
  12. Columbia University
  13. Imperial College London
  14. University of Chicago
  15. University of Michigan
  16. ETH Zurich
  17. Cornell University
  18. John Hopkins University
  19. Kyoto University
  20. University of Toronto

While British institutions in the top 100 are: 

  • 4.       University of Cambridge
  • 5.       University of Oxford
  • 13.      Imperial College London
  • 24.      London School of Economics and Political Science
  • 25.      University College London
  • =43.    King's College London
  • =46.    University of Edinburgh
  • 51- 60  University of Manchester
  • 91-100 London Business School
  • 91-100 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The US remains the undisputed superpower when it comes to academic prestige with 46 of the top 100 places (up from 43 last year) and eight of the top 10 (one more than last year) - including a clean sweep of the top three. It is not surprising that US universities are held in such high esteem worldwide - they have been seen as the key institutions for close to a century now, and their reputations have strengthened. These reputations generally remain unless there is some kind of crisis. Furthermore, many academics and university leaders around the world have studied in the US and hold their alma maters in high esteem. There is, additionally, the fact that American research productivity continues to impact. 

Of the US universities that have fallen behind, the majority are public institutions which have suffered state funding cuts such as the University of Massachusetts falling from 42nd to 61-70 and Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, falling from 81-90 to 91-100. 

At the same time, the recession, budget cuts and tuition fee hikes have had no negative impact on the standing of the private sector. American universities as a whole retain their number one global position, but global opinion is now starting to discriminate between different US institutions more than in the past. 

The Reputation Rankings are a funny notion - on the one hand, prestige is often unfair (where based, for example, on past glories or the halo effect of a vibrant city) and is based on nothing more than subjective opinion (albeit the informed, expert insights of experienced scholars from across the world), while on the other hand, these opinions are increasingly important and have real-world consequences. An attractive reputation is essential to engaging the most talented researchers and, increasingly, the best teaching and professional services staff, while research by recruitment agents IDP has shown that a university’s good name is the prime consideration - above tuition fees and course content -  for international students when choosing where to study. 

With the stakes so high, the performance of the UK, the next best represented country in the tables is cause for concern. It has 10 representatives in the top 100, up from 9 last year, but the data provide evidence of growing polarisation between the London-Oxford-Cambridge “golden triangle” and the rest of the country, with 8 of the 10 from here. The University of Bristol drops out of the top 100 this year, following the University of Leeds which did so last year, and the University of Sheffield which lost its top 100 standing in 2012. In addition, the University of Manchester slips out of the top 50 into the 51-60 band this year. At the same time, King’s College London leaps from 61-70 to joint 43rd. They attribute this success to consolidation after a series of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s that greatly enhanced the institution and a marked rise in international appreciation of the quality of their research and teaching. They’ve done well recently with two of their alumni awarded Nobel prizes last year while also receiving donations of £20 million and £7 million from further alumni. 

The overall problem for our universities is the winner-takes-all aspect to research performance: success and perceptions of success reinforce success so other universities are more likely to wish to collaborate with institutions that they perceive to be of high quality which reinforces their reputation. This produces a few winners and a downward spiral of losers - a trend we are already witnessing. While reputation surveys do not tell you anything objective about quality, they, nevertheless, do reflect visibility and the awareness by others of a university’s activities: academics are likely to be more aware of those with whom they have recently collaborated, those with recent relevant articles and those presenting at conferences. So surveys such as this are likely to be harbingers of things to come and predictors of subsequent trends. We should not be surprised if in the future years the citation and publication rates of universities that are now ranked lower in reputation surveys begin to follow suit. 

While US public universities and some of their UK peers continue to suffer funding cuts, many leading Asian institutions are thriving. The region’s top performer is Japan, with five universities in the top 100. The University of Tokyo slips out of the top 10, however the others all rise or maintain their position. In Korea, Seoul National University jumps to 26th position from 41st. The university’s president, Oh Yeon-Choen, notes that it has recently undertaken several initiatives designed to raise its global profile, including a visiting programme for eminent scholars and new institutional collaborations. 

What will happen to the reputation of universities in the future? Due to the time lag between reality and reputation, some of the impressive academic developments in Asia may take some time to be recognised. Similarly, some universities that have suffered recently or are resting on their laurels may not suffer reputational damage for a while.

In 16th place, one consistent university is ETH Zurich and their president recognises that the institution's success is a long-term commitment. He notes that it takes years before a research project generates results and if they start to plan for a new curriculum today, the first graduates with that curriculum under their belt will enter the labour market in four to six years’ time. He has a four-point formula to success: talented students supplied by the strong Swiss school system and international recruitment; excellent faculty, two-thirds of whom are non-Swiss; solid funding, 75% of the university’s budget is public funding as a block grant; and institutional freedom allowing researchers to take a long-term view and to engage in research with uncertain outcomes.