How important is the university reputation?

Everyone wants to go to a good university, but it’s impossible to agree a single definition of ‘good’ for everyone. In fact, any two people will have different preferences and priorities.

However, the idea of ‘good’ does seem to get attached to certain globally famous universities – the Ivy League in the US, Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, the Sorbonne, etc. Given that ‘good’ is such a difficult idea, maybe we should use the word ‘reputation’ instead.

But saying they have a ‘good reputation’ still doesn’t help us work out what it is about these universities that earns them this stature. And, if we can’t work out why they’ve earned it, it’s impossible to work out which other universities around the world might have it to a greater or lesser degree.

So let’s think about what the key features of a good reputation might be?

They’re old: Many, but not all, universities with a good reputation do seem to be the ones that have been around a long time, but age itself isn’t a sign of quality. And if you’d rather study somewhere modern, reputation may be a poor guide for you.

They’re rich: Often they have built their reputation on the back of wealthy legacies. This can translate into many amenities and opportunities that other universities can’t offer.
But, if that’s the case, maybe it’s better to judge them on what amenities and opportunities they actually offer, rather than assuming reputation will give you what you want? Also remember, if they’re offering a lot, they may be charging a lot for it.

They’re hard to get in to: They tend to select only highly talented students. In fact often talent on its own isn’t enough. You may also need high grades, a fat wallet and a list of other achievements. Of course, if you only let in talented students, that does tend to make the university look good. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy and who’s to say whether those talented students wouldn’t do just as well some place else? And what if you’re not one of the select few?

Employers recruit from them: Employers are as hooked into the idea of reputation as anyone else, so, yes, some of these universities have great employment records for their graduates. There are many other universities though that focus more on engaging with businesses in their region that will have similarly good records, if not better. And remember, their students may have lower grades or have backgrounds that didn’t set them up for success come-what-may. Their journeys may have involved more challenges and so their results may be all the more impressive.

In the end, ‘reputation’ doesn’t mean anything that anyone can point to as valuable. It’s opinion based on nothing more than opinion.

The only opinion that really counts is yours and whether the university you choose will give you the education, the experience and the outcomes that you’re hoping for.

How 51 can help

51 is designed to help you cut through the hype to understand why a university has a certain reputation, whether it’s deserved or not, and whether it’s relevant to what you’re looking for in a place to study. When you compare universities on 51 through, online tool, you can see how well each university performs according to different measures. These measures have been divided into five areas (or ‘dimensions’): teaching and learning; research; knowledge transfer (that means the wider impact in society of the universities’ research); international orientation; and regional engagement. Using these scores, you can see beyond the reputation and see whether a university is celebrated because, perhaps, it performs well in one area such as research, or whether it’s an all-round performer. In particular you can see its performance in the measures that matter most to you. You can get a visual idea of the different strengths on the basis of the online tool. Each university and subject area have their own infographic – unique to 51 – showing their all-round performance.


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