Jul 17 '13
University League Tables play a number of different roles when they are released each year. For prospective students they’re a tool for choosing the right place, for employers an easy way to filter job applications but for universities they are the gateway to research funding and fees. When the results are positive, it’s great. Universities that rank highly can shout it from the rooftops and show everyone exactly how they’ve ticked all the right boxes for their happy students. But what happens when the results aren’t as good as expected? What happens when a university takes a knock?
The majority of prospective students, parents and advisers know to take University League Tables with a pinch of salt. It’s an objective view of the country’s institutions that boils down to numbers, stats and graphs provided by final year students who are likely to be feeling tentative and frustrated by their postgraduate options. While it’s unavoidable to receive a ranking, it’s important to remember that most people researching the university will have their own criteria.
The key to dealing with a lower-than-expected ranking is not to panic. Look at the student satisfaction results carefully and highlight the main areas that need work. It takes more than one league table result to damage a reputation so there’s still time to rebuild. Don’t be afraid to show where things haven’t necessarily gone to plan but place a focus on how, where and why you’re going to improve them. In four years, Lancaster University managed to climb from number 19 to within the top ten. They said that this was down to learning to understand how the tables worked and implementing a ‘deliberate policy of using the metrics to drive institutional performance’.
One big error to avoid is passing blame. This year Sussex University tumbled down the league table and the news caused a lot of tension within the institution as management blamed staff and the league table algorithm. Be cautious if providing statements to the media and agree a unified and positive message before speaking to any journalists. If different factions from within the university give out mixed messages, the establishment may appear to be failing to communicate effectively. .
Engage with student societies and councils and provide opportunities for members to air grievances and raise concerns. Agree a proactive social media strategy in which you listen to and monitor chatter and then engage with students where appropriate. You’ll often find they’ll be a lot more honest and blunt in emails and on social media networks than in formal, face-to-face meetings so communicate at all levels and through all traditional and offline channels. Showing how challenges are being addressed will create strong foundations for PR and will provide content for emails, newsletters, blogs, social media and press releases. Stories that follow the idea: “You said this…. We listened… Now we’re fixing the problem … And this is how and when things will be better” make for strong messages. .
Consider creating a page on your university website that gives a little more information about how league tables work. Falmouth University has done exactly this with a brief overview of how the tables are calculated and what this means to prospective students. It could also be accompanied by guides to the league tables to help interested students, parents and employers look in the right places. If your lower ranking is an anomaly, make this clear by adding links to previous results and highlight areas where the institution is performing above average. Put an emphasis on the importance of every student’s unique experience and how they can learn more about real university life through open days, summer schools or simply interacting with the institution on social media networks. Marketing the university as an approachable institution that listens to its staff, students and league table results can ensure that prospective students are looking at the real picture, not just cold numbers that can mask the positives.