Reputational Cake Mix: Has the reputational recipe for Higher Education changed in the pandemic?

Most universities know that reputation is their most important asset. And that it’s a subtle mix of ingredients that your stakeholders consume and pass judgement on. But has the recipe for reputation changed as a result of the pandemic?

Firstly, it is a truism that online delivery will be more critical to higher education in future, but it will also be a more important component of reputation. The campus and student experience will still be valued, especially when we can access reality again, but ‘relevant, engaging online teaching’ will be much more critical. A director of communications of a high-profile Australian university said to me this week that there was no way any university was going to go back to ‘normal’ teaching after this. Her sense was that hybrid degrees would be the new norm to expand and reach students who can’t afford long haul flights and accommodation across the world, or simply don’t want to risk the unknown viral soup of a different country. So, students and their funders (parents, employers, governments etc) - as well as universities looking for sector partners - will judge a university by how well it delivers online education in future because that will be the insurance cover, the short-term solution to international student recruitment and a long-term path to institutional growth.

Research has always been a foundation to university reputation, but its impact on global health specifically will now be a much more important component of university reputation. The public now gets ‘science’ in a way that they probably never did before;  they understand R numbers, viral risk, and vaccine development. A university is going to be judged by stakeholders and the wider public in terms of how well it is contributing to fighting the disease and supporting global recovery. When AstraZeneca announced its partnership with Oxford University in April last year, Louise Richardson, their VC, said it was important to find a company willing to “see the bigger picture and do good with the vaccine, and to pass up the opportunity to profiteer from the pandemic”. Whilst Johns Hopkins and Oxford University may be the poster boys of the pandemic, there are many more universities who have punched above their weight at a national or global level to tackle Covid, and they will be the ones most attractive to students, research funders and academics.

‘Having the best students’ may however be less critical to reputation henceforth.  The rhetoric around the best and brightest going to the best universities has dissolved a lot this year. Whilst performance has become even more closely aligned with wealth due to the pandemic where those students with private tutors and separate study space can naturally achieve more than those without, exams being abolished and grade inflation have meant that students are more likely to be admitted on potential rather than polish. For the first time ever, Cambridge is joining other leading universities to offer students the chance to go on a foundation courses to prove their worth rather than simply take the best students from the private and high performing state sector. Throw in the global demand of Black Lives Matter, and you have a society ready to break down social divides. So, university reputation will be judged increasingly by what it offers the disadvantaged as much as how well it sucks up the privileged.

Employability will be more important too. Reputation will depend on whether universities are providing an education that helps students secure graduate jobs in a recession-hit world. As consultants, we have been approached by many universities this quarter, wanting us to review their course portfolios – to ensure they are recruiting well, aligned with employer expectations, and offering the best economies of scale for the university. We are likely to see a decline of internal subject cannibalisation, or disciplines that a university can’t really afford to teach well. We have always advised that universities need to focus on subject excellence and distinctiveness in order to be reputable but Covid has made this necessary. Research funders and private benefactors haven’t the inclination to support universities that are just ‘quite good at everything’, rather than ‘very good’ at specific things.

Finally, the actual engagement between universities and their audiences will be more important to get right, because Covid has promoted cynicism of governments and systems. We are tired of collective poor judgement, waffle, and prevarication; too many people have died because of bureaucracy in the Covid years. Universities need to be more agile, decisive and clear in their offerings and better at stakeholder engagement.

So, my conclusion is reputation will continue to matter but the ‘cake mix’ of what goes into its making has changed. The key ingredients are now taking us into online, inclusivity, employability, and impact. Traditional delivery, campus experience, and heritage may now be the icing, rather than fundamental to the cake itself. And universities need to communicate, measure and demonstrate these important ingredients if they want stakeholders to give them a star review.