The Stickiness of Reputation

Reputation brings baggage with it. Baggage is unavoidable. A once prestigious university would have to experience a high-profile disaster before it took down the generally high opinion of it amongst the public and/or anyone previously associated with the institution. By high-profile, I’m talking stratospheric.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that reputation is still seen as important from many perspectives, despite it meaning little in reality when it comes to teaching quality.

“Reputation measures are largely invalid as indicators of educational quality. Institutions with an existing high reputation may have a vested interest in resisting the introduction of more valid indicators of educational quality.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.13]

From an admissions point of view, parents and prospective students will be interested to find out which places have historical positive benefits attached to it, since both employers and alumni will see the subsequent benefit of the graduates emerging from the university each year. This may have little bearing on reality, but it’s where baggage comes into play.

Baggage (photo by striatic) CC BY 2.0

Taking it all with you. (photo by striatic)

No matter how hard you try, this mystical reputation is hard to shift. Reputation isn’t generally altered on a year by year basis either. For sake of ease, let’s take Oxford. You’re unlikely to find a situation where an employer quibbles over whether a job candidate graduated in 2010 or 2011.

That type of reputation consideration would be nonsense, unless a scandal was discovered on a grand scale in a particular year. It would also have to be the type of scandal impacting upon everyone attending. Or at least all members of a certain course. This is highly unlikely. The context would have to be pretty good and the employer would have to be pretty bothered about it to make those distinctions.

“It is uncertain whether the use of more valid indicators of educational quality will gradually change perceptions of what reputation is about, and turn it into a more useful guide to student choice.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.8]

So we’re stuck with reputation for now. Like it or not, it makes a difference. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Either way, you won’t find out on which occasions it swayed decisions, so much of it happens covertly.

Will perceptions change regarding what reputation is about? I don’t see it around the corner any time soon, because perceptions run deeper than more detailed information and statistical analysis. In addition, reputations go deeper than institution level. And each institution can have all sorts of reputational perspectives that mean different things to different people.

The reputational baggage may be from hundreds of years in the past or all about last year’s results from a particular course. Undergraduate success may rest indirectly in past research findings or it may be down to a recent mutual partnership. One person may ride with the baggage positively, while another person gets thrown to the sharks.

“An increasing number of institutions are using data to track progress in emphasising the ‘institutional USP’. They are marketing themselves as distinctive in relation to a particular indicator, such as employability, and emphasising that variable in programme-level learning outcomes and in institution-wide quality enhancement efforts, and then collecting better data than are currently available in order to monitor progress.” [HEA: ‘Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment, p.10]

An institutional USP [Unique Selling Point] is useful to sell the university and course, but can it act as a reputational selling point? Can the ideal of what makes an institution tick be captured in the essence of a brief USP? It may cement opinions that are already held, but how quickly could it sway opinions more favourably?

While I believe universities have an increasing need to specialise, I’m not sure reputation will change that easily for the vast majority. Over time–dependent on too many variables to allow predictions other than complete guesswork–the situation may improve (or, indeed, falter) due to priorities based on USP. Still, nothing is clear.

For now, reputation seems to fall very roughly into two camps. The historical and the recent. Some universities have the reputation in place due to age and the sheer amount of past baggage. Other universities have the reputation in place due to more recent events that caused a reaction that was often beyond their own planning or expectation. Historical narratives are more likely to hold their place in the long run, because that baggage just doesn’t disappear. In other words, baggage is helpful for those who are already helped by it.

As the HEA report discusses, more/better/greater data can assist staff to an extent, but reputation is never a given. That’s why I call it mystical. Good or bad, when perceptions are firmly in place, they are hard to change. And when there’s a blank (or indifferent) slate, change is unlikely to arrive overnight unless through unintended fluke. For the sake of the university, hopefully a positive fluke!