Issue 6

SCOTTISH UNIVERSITIES AND REPUTATION MANAGEMENT

By Sara Davidson, Higher Education Research, Ipsos MORI Scotland

March saw the publication of the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings. Only seven UK institutions were ranked in the top 50 and, of these, only one – the University of Edinburgh – was Scottish (ranked 46th).

The Russell Group, the main representative body for the UK’s leading research universities, responded to the Rankings by pointing out that UK institutions “punch above their weight” and “do more with less”, outperforming most rivals relative to expenditure. Still, there is no doubt that the Times data will have come as a major disappointment to all those charged with marketing UK institutions – and Scottish ones more especially – who over recent years have been battling harder than ever to attract a greater share of the global market amidst increased competition from the US, East Asia and Europe. So, why aren’t Scottish institutions performing better in reputational terms and is there more that can be done to address this?

Research conducted by Ipsos MORI Scotland over many years has provided some possible answers to this question. On the one hand, we have found good brand recognition, among international academics and prospective/current students alike, of some of Scotland’s ancient institutions; particularly Edinburgh. (Rankings like those produced by The Times appear to have been key in fostering this recognition, along with promotional efforts on the part of individual institutions and word of mouth advocacy).  More generally, we’ve found evidence that international awareness and perceptions of Scotland as a study destination have been positively affected by key Scottish Government strategies over the years, particularly the Fresh Talent: Working in Scotland scheme and the current policy of offering free tuition to EU nationals.

… we have found good brand recognition, among international academics and prospective/current students alike, of some of Scotland’s ancient institutions

On the other hand, it is also clear from our work that, for the large proportion of non-Scottish domiciled academics and prospective/current students, Scotland remains something of an unknown quantity and this significantly undermines the potential appeal of even its best institutions. Even among ‘Rest of UK’ (RUK) audiences, self-reported familiarity with Scotland is often astonishingly low, with perceptions of the country tending to reflect (largely negative) national stereotypes – for example, that Scotland is predominantly rural; that its towns and cities are quiet/quaint with little in the way of nightlife; that the Scottish accent is hard to understand; and that the weather is consistently cold and wet. Among some applicants there is also a perception that Scottish degrees are less highly regarded by employers than those obtained south of the border.

The Scottish university fee structure has furthered detracted from the country’s appeal among the RUK applicant market specifically.  The fact that English, Welsh and Northern Irish students are charged tuition fees while Scottish and EU students are not has been interpreted by some RUK applicants as a tacit signal that they are not welcome in Scottish universities.

…for) non-Scottish domiciled academics and prospective/current students, Scotland remains something of an unknown quantity and this significantly undermines the potential appeal of even its best institutions.

A number of developments on the horizon have the potential to further shape perceptions of Scottish institutions, both in the rest of the UK and further afield.  Arguably, the most significant of these is the result of the 2014 independence referendum. In an independent Scotland, RUK students may have the status of EU students and therefore could be entitled to free tuition. While this could increase significantly the appeal of Scottish institutions to those students, it could also, as Riddell et al have recently highlighted, result in Scots students being squeezed out of their home institutions . Accordingly, there has been some suggestion of reserving quotas for Scottish domiciled students or of introducing a separate admissions system for EU students, involving an administration fee. Clearly, however, these options could have downsides in terms of Scotland’s UK and global competitiveness. 

An independent Scotland could also herald changes to research funding in Scottish universities. Currently, Scottish academics compete with their peers across the UK for research grants from the Research Councils and, indeed, have traditionally received a disproportionate share of those grants. Universities Scotland and individual Scottish university principals have expressed concern that if Scottish institutions were to lose access to these funds under independence, they may find it difficult to retain and attract the highest calibre academics (and by extension students) from across the globe.

Alongside these potential challenges, a host of other developments are likely to impact on the attractiveness of Scotland’s HE sector over the coming years; in particular, the recent changes to international students visas, yet greater competition from global competitors and, on the domestic front, the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence and outcome agreements – which both raise important strategic questions concerning the role of universities in 21st century Scotland.

Against this backdrop, it will be more important than ever for institutions to continually take stock of how they are perceived by key external audiences – from prospective undergraduates and postgraduates to academic staff and employers – and to ensure that their branding, marketing and recruitment strategies are clearly informed by this evidence; as well as wider intelligence on target markets’ needs and expectations.  At the same time, and given the significant role that perceptions of Scotland as a country appear to have on evaluations of individual Scottish institutions, there is a strong case to be made for greater cross-institutional (and, indeed, cross-sectoral) working towards common objectives.

Sara Davidson, Higher Education Research, Ipsos MORI Scotland
Email: Sara.Davidson@ipsos.com

By Sara Davidson, Higher Education Research, Ipsos MORI Scotland

Issue 6

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