University rankings are very much part of the fabric of 21st century higher education. Whether or not you think this is a good thing is another matter altogether.

Either way, they provide a tool through which students, academics, and the general public can directly compare institutions.

Should they play a role in university branding too? There is no easy answer, of course; it hinges on a number of variables…

Who do you think you are?

For one thing, it depends on what sort of operation you’re running. Shanghai Jiao Tong University launched the first multi-indicator international university ranking back in 2003: the Academic Ranking of World Universities (aka ARWU). This ranking unashamedly focuses on scientific research output.

The THE and QS global rankings (once a joint operation, but no more) that followed widened the focus a little, with indicators looking at teaching quality, international diversity, and, in QS’s case, employability. Nonetheless they very much follow the precedent set by the ARWU in leaning principally on research output/academic reputation. Consequently, they inevitably skew towards STEM subjects. Critics have also pointed to a bias towards English-language publication.

Will they work for your institution?

As you can see, this will work against several types of institution: liberal arts colleges, those focused on vocational or artistic training, or any institution operating primarily in a non-Anglophone context, for example.

There are certain categories of universities, however, for whom this paradigm can work. One such example is research-intensive universities which boast solid reputations at national level, but don’t have the international name recognition of an LSE or an MIT.

A decent ranking can be invaluable in attracting (lucrative) international students to these universities. For such students – and their families – rankings provide an internationally-recognised benchmark, by which an institution’s credibility might be judged (though not the only one: we might note that, for instance, the University of Coventry has one of the highest numbers of international students in the UK, despite a relatively low overall ranking).

Younger STEM institutions, which can’t call on reputations built on storied histories, can also benefit from rankings. Young Asian institutions such as KAIST in South Korea, and NTU in Singapore are good examples, with strong rankings performances showing that they deserve to be taken as seriously as much older research institutions by prospective students and researchers.

Beyond the big three

The limitations of international rankings are clear even to their compilers. In recent years we have seen a proliferation of different variants of rankings which aim to address this: subject rankings, regional rankings, employment rankings, etc. Universities also have recourse to their score/rank in individual rankings indicators.

This creates more scope for institutions which perform well in these categories to demonstrate and play up their idiosyncratic strengths. A good rank which chimes with a university’s brand identity can certainly serve as validation, which can then be leveraged in brand communication.

There are scores of national rankings also. These certainly might play a part in a domestic applicant choosing institution A over institution B, or determining whether a university is worth applying to at all. This is most important for institutions outside the traditional top-tier, on which there lies a greater burden to prove some sort of ROI for the modern student-consumer.

There’s far less onus on well-established elite universities, with brands built upon prestige, to argue this case for themselves. It’s essentially bragging rights at this level…

What about the rest?     

Even with the above-mentioned variants, by definition, only a limited number of institutions who stand to gain from rankings can be included.

For better or worse, the reality is that this can hurt or bolster a university brand in the current climate (though some reports find that their importance is in decline).

But we should certainly not lose sight of the fact that they are one-size-fits-all exercises. Leaving aside the scores of excellent non-Anglophone universities out there (though these often operate in countries where higher education is free, making it a different proposition altogether), this means that they can only serve a limited amount (and types) of institutions. And this usually means the status quo.

If you’re trying to break into this status quo, they can be a good measure of progress – though we would advise against using them as a benchmarking tool.

For everyone else, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect. What are your actual strengths? And who exactly do you want to know about them? Rankings are only a single part of the branding mix, and perhaps they do not adequately measure what you’re about.

It’s worth focusing energy and resources on developing a carefully-cultivated brand identity and strategy, rather than obsessing over rankings. Offer high-quality provision based on this, and your brand reputation will grow – amplified by an equally carefully-cultivated communication strategy.

It might be that this ends up being reflected in rankings…or it might be that, actually, it doesn’t matter.

Looking for some guidance on how to monitor and develop your university brand reputation? We can help.