Here's why the same six varsities always come out on top of the world

A general view of Harvard University. [AP Photo]

Every year, Times Higher Education (THE) asks many thousands of academics across the world to name the very best universities, based on their subjective — but expert — judgement. Every year, something quite remarkable happens.

From close to half a million individual votes from over 100 countries cast in THE’s global Academic Reputation Survey, and from a potential population of around 30,000 higher education institutions, just six universities — from only two countries — stand-out as being truly renowned academic brands. The six “global university super-brands” as we have come to call them, fall in the following order in the 2022 edition of the rankings out this week: Harvard in first place; followed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford; Oxford; Cambridge and then the University of California Berkeley.

Across more than a decade of this annual exercise, Harvard has always been top, and while the exact order of all six has shuffled across the years, it is always the same six, followed by a significant drop in the number of reputation votes for the seventh placed university, which has always been Princeton.

Mark Sudbury, head of the World 100 Reputation Network, a membership group of leading university communications chiefs, part of THE, thinks that when it comes to universities, “success breeds success.”

He said: “The academic super-brands have come to embody the essence of successful universities — historic, attracting the best staff and students and the lion’s share of available funding, and being part of national and global discussions.”
“And when considering the quality of institutions — whether through rankings or more qualitative assessments — success really does breed success.”

But what is it about these six universities, in particular, that they stand out so much that they can be considered “super-brands”

Nick Dirks, who led one member of the super sextet, Berkeley, as its chancellor and who is now president of the New York Academy of Sciences, points out that the six institutions “come in three pairs — each pair connected by co-location in a region as well as by a host of other synergies that in turn have created an ecosystem that is far more powerful than any single university on its own.”

Stanford is paired with Berkeley in America’s San Francisco Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley.

“Stanford became a great university after the second world war through securing massive federal support for its research — research work that helped power the innovation of the Silicon Valley. But it also relied on the pre-existing resources of UC Berkeley,” explained Dirks.

“Berkeley had already created traditions of academic achievement, recruiting extraordinary faculty and students to the Bay Area, while also establishing a reputation for excellence in basic science as well as in almost all core disciplines. This allowed — and perhaps encouraged — Stanford to focus more on applied research in its growth strategy, though it too soon became a comprehensive university.”

Similarly, he said, in the UK, Oxford and Cambridge – or Oxbridge as the pair is regularly called — have been mutually strengthened by their centuries-old “connections and interdependencies.”

Meanwhile in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Harvard’s traditional strengths… helped to empower as well as create a niche for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its original focus areas of applied science and engineering.”

“There is little doubt that the innovation centres of the Bay Area and Cambridge, Massachusetts, owe much to the fact that each region had two top universities with complementary research strategies; in turn, the growing ecosystem of these two regions helped sustain and further power its local universities,” said Dirks.

“Cities or regions with only one great university could not compete with them, and so for years New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago lagged behind in innovation, science, and technology.”

For Sudbury, however, there is no room for complacency. There are many emerging competitors to the traditional superstars.

Where, he asked, might the next university super brands come from?
China’s Beijing is one potential source. Having entered the top ten of the Word Reputation Rankings last year, from 13th to tenth place, Tsinghua University in Beijing takes ninth place this year. Its Beijing neighbour, Peking University, has moved from 16th to 15th to 13th in the last three years. Shanghai is not far behind, with Shanghai Jiao Tong University taking 28th place, pairing with Fudan in 39th.

Singapore is also an emerging world powerhouse with an all-important complementary pair: National University of Singapore, which has moved to 19th place, up from 24th, alongside Nanyang Technological University, moving up to joint 40th this year.

“Despite the super-brands’ ongoing success,” said Sudbury, “there is still a need to manage reputations — not least because the more visible a university is, the more likely it is to be a target for challenge.”