The universities at the top of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings have many similar qualities: they produce high-quality, groundbreaking research, deliver innovative education and have strong relationships with their local and global communities.
But one university has a rarer attribute that makes these achievements even more impressive. KU Leuven is the only university in the top 50 of the table with an open admissions system, says its rector Luc Sels.
“In Flanders, we have an open intake system so we cannot refuse students. If students want to come and take a programme in KU Leuven, they are all welcome,” he explains.
“This combination of being very strong in research and at the same time being very democratic and open—and allowing all students to study with us—is a difficult combination, a very challenging one for us, but we are quite proud of what we accomplish in being able to combine those two.”
This democratic quality is extended to the staff, too. Deans and the rector are not appointed but elected by academics. As a result, staff “feel really embedded in the system—they remain loyal to the system” and the university has a “very low degree of voluntary turnover of researchers and professors”, says Sels.
KU Leuven is ranked 47th in the THE World University Rankings and its prestige is fast catching up with its performance. It is now in the 51-60 band of the 2018 THE World Reputation Rankings, up from the 71-80 position last year. It is once again the only Belgian institution to make the top 100 list.
Sels says KU Leuven's strength is down to four elements.
First, the university does not specialise in one or two areas but is strong across a wide range of disciplines under 15 faculties, he says.
“I think that's very important, especially in the reputational survey, because that immediately implies that&hellips;we are quite well known in all the faculties of our international peers,” he says.
Second, “one of the jewels in the crown of KU Leuven is&hellips;the enormous technology transfer capacity of the university”. This, combined with the university's strong performance in European research programmes—the university is among the top 10 institutions when it comes to the amount of Horizon 2020 funding received between 2014 and 2017—“largely determine our current international stature and positioning”, he says.
Third, the university has the largest academic hospital in continental Europe. The university and hospital are “fully integrated” and a “single legal entity”, which enables the institution “to be strong from bench to bed and back”, says Sels.
And fourth, KU Leuven's international networks, including its League of European Research Universities membership and the resulting collaboration, is a “major trump card”, according to Sels.
Overall, the results of the 2018 World Reputation Rankings are relatively stable, with the same US and UK universities claiming the top eight places. The only change is that the University of Oxford drops slightly from joint fourth to fifth place, to fall behind the University of Cambridge.
The University of Chicago remains in ninth place for the second year but it is joined by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which makes the top 10 for the first time since 2014, after rising four places.
The US still dominates the table with 44 universities, up from 42 last year, although it is worth noting that this year's table includes 105 universities, four more than last year, as a result of joint scores.
The UK has nine universities, one fewer than last year. Six of these, including all four of its London representatives, have declined.
China and Germany jointly claim the title of the third-most represented nation, with six institutions each. But half of the representatives in each country have fallen down the list.
In the case of Germany, questions have been raised over whether its Excellence Initiative has created meaningful differentiation in its higher education system.
Meanwhile, signs of decline in China, after years of consistent progress, suggest that predictions of the country's continued higher education rise may have been overstated or premature—although its two most prestigious players, Tsinghua and Peking, have maintained their positions in the top 20.
It is a similar story in Japan, with the nation claiming five places, down from six last year, and four of these declining.
The Netherlands also has five, but this is up from four last year and most of its universities have improved or remained stable. All three of Canada's representatives have also made gains.
But an Asian nation has once again proved what a significant higher education player it is on the global stage: Singapore. Its flagship National University of Singapore rises three places to 24th, while its younger neighbour Nanyang Technological University makes the 51-60 band, its highest ever position, up from 81-90 last year.
Kirk D. Kolenbrander, vice-president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is ranked second for the third consecutive year, says the university's strength is “bolstered by its people, first and foremost; by fostering a community that enables those talented individuals to thrive; and by an ethos of continuous assessment”.
“People are the primary ingredient in success, and we work to create a community where they can be their full selves,” he says.
“The people of MIT have been working across disciplines and breaking down silos since before ‘interdisciplinary' was a buzzword. We try to remember that ethos in all areas of our work, including communications.
“And in recent years, more and more we remind ourselves that our best solutions to any problem come from not only ‘mind and hand' (following the MIT motto, mens et manus), but, as many long before the current generation can attest, from ‘mind and hand and heart'—thinking, doing and caring.”
Kolenbrander adds that ongoing critical assessment of its programmes also plays a vital role in “setting up people for success”.
“Visiting committee members, from academia, business and industry, provide valuable counsel on current activities and future directions. The insights from that process and other efforts to continuously improve the institution ultimately strengthen our community and benefit the talented people who come here to change the world,” he says.
Gene Block, chancellor of UCLA, the highest riser in the top 15, attributes the university's strong reputation to two factors.
“The first is a deep commitment to our mission as a public institution, dedicated to access and affordability as well as a focus on research and scholarship that can benefit society,” he says, adding that “many excellent faculty and students select UCLA over other prestigious research institutions” because of this commitment and that the university is “fundamentally linked to our communities locally and globally”.
“Second, our location here in Los Angeles, a vibrant and diverse city recognised the world over for its spirit of creativity and innovation, has been a critical factor in raising the profile of our campus,” he continues.
“We believe these factors have helped UCLA consistently attract a diverse mix of the best and brightest students, faculty and staff who want to be a part of our campus community.”
Distinctiveness in higher education may seem to be an elusive goal, given that most universities have very similar missions, but Carole Arwidson suggests that the answer may be for institutions at least in the US to find a niche among their local peers.
“Most students [in the US] attend college within 100 miles of home, and so within that radius, for some students there are not as many options that are that similar to one another,” says the vice president and director of market research at The Lawlor Group, a higher education marketing firm based in Minnesota.
“An institution must understand its value proposition and express and live that authentically. Then it can attract students who are looking for what it has to offer.”
Of course, reputation is a subjective indicator, which makes the World Reputation Rankings distinct from THE's other tables. But that does not mean that it is not important.
A recent survey of more than 2,000 UK university students by students lettings app SPCE found that the reputation of a university was the second most important factor for them when choosing an institution, behind only the course on offer and beating the university's perceived ability to boost later career opportunities.
However, Arwidson says that universities today are in a tough marketplace.
“Increased media attention on value, worth, and outcomes; governmental oversight; families' ability and willingness to pay; and institutional challenges related to financial stability and vitality, product offerings, and the physical plant, among other things, all bear down on institutions and keep their leaders up at night,” she says.
A 2016 survey of 216 independent college presidents in the US, from The Lawlor Group and RHB, another higher education marketing consultancy firm, found that 63 per cent said that families' ability to pay was among their top external marketing challenges. Meanwhile, 68 per cent cited the costs associated with running their institutions to be among their greatest internal marketing challenges.
And there are signs that a university's prestige is now a more significant commodity than it was in the past.
A 2017 survey of university board members and administrative leaders from United Educators, a liability insurance and risk management services firm for universities, found that 83 per cent believe that reputational risk is more important than it was three years ago.
The perceived top reputational risks to their institutions over the last three years fell under the categories of campus climate (eg, diversity of students and senior administration), prevention and response to sexual assault, academic programmes (eg, quality of courses, students and faculty) and student behaviour (eg, campus safety and student mental health).
But the top reputational risk going forward, according to the respondents, is higher education's business model—an area including enrolment trends, fiscal management, staffing levels and tuition management.
KU Leuven's Sels agrees that financial issues, in particular around building infrastructure and establishing a long-term investment plan, are among the main challenges facing the university.
However, when it comes to reputation, he says universities should think of this not as “an end in itself” but as a tool that “allows you to talk to the very best institutions worldwide”.
“Having a good ranking is not an end in itself but&hellips;a very important lever to try to realise our ambition. That is becoming a truly international university and trying to serve society—and mankind—in the best ways possible through innovative research and high-level education.”