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Feeding your quality and reputational development cycle

Becky Smith, Advance HE Global Associate discusses the importance of building your institution's reputational profile along with examples from across South East Asia and the Middle East.

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Manchester and her co-author, Alan Ferns, have previously written (2018): “Reputation is what people think of us. While we can try to influence it, it’s not fully in our control. Great reputations are created by great outputs, positioned and delivered with consistently high standards right across an organisation and to our many audiences and stakeholders over the long-term.”

For a higher education institution (HEI), a good reputation, real or perceived, can enable it to gain competitive advantage both domestically and internationally. Institutions are frequently differentiated based on their overall reputation but, often, by their specific strengths and specialisms. Institutional reputational profile can be based on a number of criteria such as academic reputation, student satisfaction and location.

At Walailak University (WU), an Advance HE member institution in Thailand, there was an ambition to enhance reputation and develop a ‘culture of teaching’ to support student retention and satisfaction. Working in partnership with Advance HE since 2018 to support teacher development and provide professional recognition to 90 percent of its teaching staff through Advance HE Fellowship has had real impact with a 30 per cent increase in student retention and 93 per cent of teaching staff being rated as 4/5 or better by students. Professor Dr. Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, President of WU said, “We have been working very hard in the past five years or so to make WU a world-class university, and high-quality teaching constitutes an essential pillar of our efforts.”

The benefits of a good reputation include attracting high-quality and, potentially globally, diverse talent in the form of students and staff. This, in turn, can feed the quality and reputational development cycle by building status and brand awareness as well as how appealing an institution may be in terms of securing research funding as well as engagement with industry and business.

How sought-after graduates from an institution are, can also be influenced by reputation and there is evidence through various surveys and indices as to how this may impact graduate employment rates, pay and mobility. For example, the ranking order attributed by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2022 for producing the most employable graduates matches the ranking order of the top 10 UK universities as ranked by THE in 2023.

Reputations are not easy to monitor and measure. However, global ranking systems conducted by independent organisations such as QS, Times Higher Education and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) are often used as comparative measures to demonstrate reputation. Although there is some criticism of rankings and their various biases and methodologies, they are nevertheless often cited and can be influential in terms of policy decisions.

Some countries, for example, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands use university rankings as part of their immigration assessment processes. Frequently, national scholarship programmes, for example, those offered by the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan and the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), require host institutions to be ranked highly.

Rankings may also impact the opportunities for HEIs to expand their Transnational Education (TNE) activities. The University Grants Commission in India, for example, uses ranking in the top 1,000 in international (QS or Times Higher Education) rankings as a mechanism to allow Indian HEIs to offer joint degrees with overseas universities.

Many of the global ranking systems use the following broad themes, amongst others, in their assessments of institutions:

  • Teaching & learning quality
  • Student success & outcomes including student engagement and graduate employment rates etc.
  • Environment including diversity, international outlook, access & fairness etc.
  • Research including volume, citations and income etc.
  • Sustainability

Rankings and an understanding of reputational strengths and weaknesses can be helpful in terms of supporting institutional strategic planning. They can provide benchmarks and act as developmental tools around which activity and resource allocations can be determined and progress measured.

An example of this is Advance HE member, Abu Dhabi University (ADU) in the UAE, which has been working with Advance HE since 2017. The University is “committed to providing an engaging learning environment, quality education and qualifications that are respected worldwide.”

ADU had the goal of developing and embedding an institutional approach to employability and wanted to reward and recognise its teaching staff. It partnered with Advance HE to implement its employability strategy. The vision was to develop a culture of learning and teaching excellence in its faculty as the catalyst for improving student outcomes and experience. The approach adopted was a ‘whole-university’ approach to embedding employability into every aspect of the student experience from the lecture theatre to extracurricular activity.

Concurrently, ADU invested in upskilling faculty teaching competence and learning leadership in the university through a bespoke teaching and leadership development programme and the Certificate in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education programme, as well as providing professional recognition to 50 faculty members through Advance HE Fellowship, all aligned to the Professional Standards Framework.

Following the successful implementation of its employability strategy, graduates of ADU have been rated the most employable in the UAE in the Times Higher ‘Graduate Employability Rankings’: ADU was ranked first in the UAE for employability, second in the GCC and at 170 globally. In the Times Higher Education 2022 World University rankings, ADU was ranked first for teaching in the UAE, and also received the prestigious 5 QS Star rating for the first time. 

Also, in the region, Dr. Faiza Zitouni, Assistant Vice President for Development Affairs at the Applied Science University (ASU) in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and a Principal Fellow, credits the success of the Advance HE member institution’s ASU-rise scheme as being instrumental in supporting ranking achievement. The scheme has supported over 150 staff to gain professional recognition for their teaching and support for learning through Advance HE Fellowship. Dr. Zitouni notes: “The work with Advance HE is demanding but ultimately very rewarding. The ASU-rise scheme, which is aligned with the PSF, has supported many of ASU’s activities, not least our QS overall rating of ‘5 Stars’ which includes the Academic Development Criterion that also scored ‘5 Stars’. These are fantastic achievements!”

In Thailand, Advance HE has been working with Srinakharinwirot University (SWU) for three years, helping them develop their academic faculty through training programmes and the Fellowship scheme. The institution recently passed the milestone of having 100 teaching Fellows recognised by Advance HE. As a result of SWU’s focus on teaching and learning, they were recently awarded a 5-star QS rating for their academic development, with the highest rating for their emphasis on faculty development.

Dr. Pansiri Phansuwan, Vice President for Academic Affairs at SWU and a Principal Fellow said: “SWU has a passion and strong commitment in teaching and learning skills development for academic staff such as the project called SWU-BEST: Srinakharinwirot University-Building Excellent Staffs in Teaching. We are really pleased to see a large number of our staff who have achieved Fellowship acting as coaches to provide support to their colleagues.  With this approach, SWU not only builds a community with Advance HE, but also establishes a sustainable way of supporting staff in teaching and learning as stated in our philosophy, Education is Growth.”

Improving reputation and, potentially, also gaining ranking success is not usually an overnight process. It requires leadership and investment, and is often based on clearly defined institutional values. Speaking at Advance HE’s recent Sustainability Conference, Professor Clare Pollock, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost at Western Sydney University (WSU), another Advance HE member institution, noted of WSU’s success in both the 2022 and 2023 Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, “We're number one in the world on gender equality. Number one in the world on responsible consumption and production. Number one in the world on partnerships. We're also number two in the world on clean water and sanitation and number two in the world on life on land.

“But that reflects work that we've been doing for many, many years starting in our community and starting with that principle that our communities will thrive.

Finally, a note of caution from Rothwell and Ferns (2018): “Reputations, like anything precious, need nurturing and careful management. A good reputation is hard won, but quickly lost – as some well-known leaders, brands and institutions can testify.”

Reference:

Rothwell, N & Ferns, A (2018) https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/magazine/opinion/the-importance-of-our-reputation/