Top 20 ways to improve your world university ranking
launched on Wednesday 4 December 2013, the scrutiny of university
performance and levels of global competition are growing all the time.
As a result, universities around the world are thinking harder than ever
about how to improve their international standing.
But what can
universities do to improve their position? Here we provide a list of
suggestions, originally written by Amanda Goodall in the 18 February
2010 issue of Times Higher Education and drawn from evidence, experience and anecdote.
1. To change a university, you need to change people’s incentivesThe
average academic or administrator in a university is completely unaware
of your university’s strategy document. If they have seen it, they
think it is waffle. So if your strategy is supposed to change behaviour,
you have to provide new incentives for your staff, and monitor
performance from the top.
University strategy works best if it is a
simple list of key priorities and not an operations manual. Marketing
experts may advise us that we need elaborate brochures, but the effect
of these on the internal community is questionable. Something glossy may
be useful for fundraising purposes, however.
2. To attract the best faculty, you need the best leadersIf
raising or maintaining research quality is part of the strategy, hire
the best scholars you can and put them in positions of power - pro
vice-chancellor for research, dean or head of department.
universities and business schools have been shown to hire the best
scholars as their heads. The probable reason is that other great
scholars will choose to be there because the culture and values of the
place will likely be more amenable under a fellow researcher.
Also, a dean who is a successful scholar may feel less threatened by someone “famous” coming in.
if a dean or pro vice-chancellor of research is not a good scholar, he
or she may have limited credibility and power within the institution.
Who would pay any attention to a pro vice-chancellor with few publications telling other staff to improve their research output?
3. Control quality through hiring panelsThe
vice-chancellor is the standard bearer, and, therefore, he or she
should set the quality threshold in the institution. If you want good
hires to be made, then control the process yourself.
A head will,
and should, delegate, but only after those receiving the delegated
powers have proved themselves. Make sure the very best researchers are
on hiring and probation committees.
Humans tend to select others
who are like themselves. A hiring panel made up of grade-two researchers
is unlikely to want to hire a grade-one researcher.
The same is
true in academic departments or schools. Why make life difficult for
ourselves by hiring people who are much better than us?
quo is much preferable, at least among the established faculty - the
younger ones are more likely to want to raise standards.
committee to advise the vice-chancellor that polices all hiring,
promotion and probation decisions. Ultimately, if this process is going
to work, it has to be driven and monitored by a leader.
Finally, ban the phrase “is there anyone on the list who is appointable?”. It encourages tolerance for mediocrity.
4. Hire the bestAgain,
the vice-chancellor should create and drive this process, and be
available to talk to potential hires personally, as should the pro
vice-chancellor for research and the head of the recruiting department.
mentioned earlier, the vice-chancellor should sit on major hiring
panels or, at the very least, review the candidates. If the university
head isn’t able or prepared to control the people who join and leave,
then the game is lost.
Don’t just advertise; think about who the
perfect candidate might be. Human resources departments could become
more active in attracting (and keeping) the best staff.
If you are
looking to hire a dean of school or a head of department, stop all new
appointments in that department prior to the head arriving, especially
key positions such as professorships.
The power to make one’s own
appointments is an important incentive for an incoming head. A new dean
should also be able to put in place his or her own top management team.
schmoozing from the moment you speak to a potential candidate. HR
should help department heads by feeding candidates information about
local schools and housing options.
Wine and dine your top
prospects, and whatever you do don’t let the perfect candidate wander
around campus alone trying to find a sandwich!
5. Know the talent list and congratulate peopleIt
is inconceivable that a successful commercial organisation would not be
fully aware of its most talented staff. Find out who they are in your
university - researchers, teachers and administrators.
that people on the ground let the vice-chancellor know when someone does
something commendable. Then send a congratulatory note.
When you reward your teachers, make it generous. Try to let people know that their contribution has not gone unnoticed.
An academic’s life is lonely. Loyalty, it is often remarked, is to the discipline, not to the university. This is rational.
usually receive positive feedback only from colleagues in their field -
assessment is by their peers, which leads to publishing, promotion and,
Academics will show loyalty to a university, but the institution must do more than get them to fill in forms.
that one or more members of staff - preferably in the HR department -
know exactly who your outstanding people are, and whether they are happy
Attracting top staff is a gruelling and increasingly expensive process - be sure to hang on to those you have!
6. No pain, no gainIf
you want to change an organisation, it is going to hurt. If you just
want an easy ride for a few years before you get a pension, then don’t
bother with a strategy for change.
The leader, board members,
junior faculty and some of the top people may think that moving up in
the rankings is a great idea. But it is unlikely that everyone else
will. We all tend to prefer the status quo.
Making “tenure” decisions can sometimes hurt the most. You get to know the person; maybe by now you are good friends.
is why the head of department should be someone who can take tough but
fair decisions; and when heads of department make those difficult
decisions, the vice-chancellor and other top team members must support
The final say on tenure or probation decisions should come
from outside a department. But often there is a culture of “you scratch
my back, I’ll scratch yours” - in other words, we’ll go with your
department’s first choice if you go with ours.
making probation decisions has to be controlled by the vice-chancellor,
via delegation to a pro vice-chancellor of research if necessary, and it
should be populated by your best scholars, who are fully aware of the
university’s strategy with regard to hiring and promotions criteria.
A probation decision should not be made lightly. A new faculty member could stay on the payroll for 35 years.
Also, a wrong decision will hurt the junior academic in the long run.
in a department where you feel you are not good enough is stressful.
Having colleagues who are a little better is motivating.
But if they are all a lot better it can lead to depression and isolation.
7. Too much change, no gainToo much organisational change drives people mad.
strategy is usually initiated and led by the vice-chancellor. Leaders
should have control of the strategy and the concomitant powers to make
But a head may stay in post for only a few years. So to
avoid the institution’s strategy flip-flopping each time a new leader
arrives, the board should attempt to bear overall responsibility for it.
other words, try to be consistent when hiring leaders. If the
overarching strategy is to develop the best interdisciplinary social
science faculty, or the largest medical school in the region, then hire
the next vice-chancellor with this in mind.
It needn’t be the only
thing an incoming vice-chancellor thinks about (every leader will have
his or her own agenda) but if a predecessor has invested university
resources and effort, don’t waste what has been achieved.
Universities take a very long time to change. To be the best in anything requires focus, tenacity and time.
8. Pay a top salary if you want the right department headThere
aren’t many more important posts in a university than the position of
head of department. Pulling teeth from an angry dog is easier than
hiring good heads of department.
A university should be prepared
to pay a decent salary for the privilege of a top-notch department head.
Offer a lot more than one term’s sabbatical leave, often spent in
Great department chairs make all the difference to the job
of vice-chancellor. Again, heads of department should be among the best
scholars in the department, and the vice-chancellor should make the
9. Incentivise raising research moneyAll
new vice-chancellors or presidents do the rounds of departments when
they arrive. It is a rare thing when “we want to raise more research
money” is not top of their list.
What doesn’t get said, however,
is why members of a department should do it when there is rarely any
mention of incentives. If you want more research money raised in the
university, offer to give something back in return.
For example, the department gets to keep an extra 10 per cent (buying out teaching and administration time should be a given).
10. Cut the red tape and reduce the number of committeesHow often have we heard this said, and how often does it happen?
tape really does cause a lot of damage in our universities. It slows
everything down, affects innovation, weakens motivation, reduces
research time and, therefore, quality.
Bureaucracy can also be a
deterrent when trying to keep good staff. Administrative processes have
ballooned. We have got to stop the tail wagging the dog.
committees, systems and processes should be assessed, and the question
posed: how does this help the core business of research and teaching? If
the case is unclear, get rid of it.
Committee minutes and reports
could be cut to a minimum. If necessary, hire a lawyer to make sure the
dots are covered. Don’t let your best people waste productive time on
This is especially relevant when trying to encourage scholars to take management jobs.
you don’t know where red tape causes the most jams in your institution,
ask your best researchers, teachers and administrators, and consult
with a recently joined faculty member, preferably one from the US.
11. As a leader, be accessibleNot just to your top team. Have a policy of hearing what others are trying to say.
able to take bad news, too. You have made it to the top and that is
quite something. Now you can have a little humility and make others feel
good about themselves.
There’s nothing better than being told that what you do makes a contribution. So what if Professor X has a massive ego?
available to students also: eat where they eat; give a seminar or
lecture directed at the student body; and let them know who you are.
you are the kind of vice-chancellor who mainly wants to be liked, or
likes to compete with your staff, don’t take the job of leader.
Also, many vice-chancellors and senior managers start to talk in a different language - managerialism.
Don’t forget the culture and the values of the place. Plain English works best.
12. Clarify the relationship between administrative and academic staffHow
many times have we heard academics and administrators moan about each
other - even registrars make jokes about academics in large
The core business of a university -
research and teaching - does not exist without academics. This should be
explained. It rarely is.
If a great scholar leaves, it will have negative implications for the whole institution. That needs to be known by everyone.
the role of administrators is sometimes viewed as “less important” by
academics. But the relationship between academics and administrators is
Better communication and a bit more networking
time together could make the world of difference. If the central
administration is located in a building miles away from the academics,
mutual respect and understanding will be less likely to develop.
Academic-related administrators, fundraisers and PR staff should dine (in decent facilities) with academics regularly.
13. Start to train scholars in management when they are youngIf,
as I have argued, good scholars make the best leaders in universities,
then potential scholar-leaders need to be trained early in their
Much management education is viewed as overly long-winded
and not tailored to the needs of academics. Young scholars have almost
no incentive to go on these type of courses, because they are viewed as
being detrimental to their research careers.
relevant courses (half-day maximum) should be offered with necessary
incentives to researchers throughout their careers - little but
(Maybe such schemes could replace the long, drawn-out teaching courses.)
14. Pick your board or council members because - and only because - they are good for the university, and then educate themThe
former head of one of America’s most famous universities once told me:
“Private universities are much better at selecting boards. They only
choose people who are deemed to be good for the university.”
Is that true of your board or council members?
second important question is: do your board members really understand
the business of universities? Do they know what your university does
It is crucially important that board members understand the institutions that they are governing.
Finally, and in relation to both previous points, ensure that you have outstanding scholars on your board or council.
should be individuals from among current staff, and, importantly,
emeritus scholars or professors from outside the university, ideally
former students who are loyal to the institution.
Former registrars or key administrative staff may also be good additions to boards.
15. Tell Government ‘No!’University leaders are the vanguard of the sector. If they lie down, the tanks roll in. There is no other protection.
a vice-chancellor is without a doubt the hardest job in higher
education. But it is depressing when we hear that universities will have
to pay for the mess caused by the City.
Let’s hope the vice-chancellors fight the good fight.
16. Give staff food for their tummies as well as thoughtThe importance of good food cannot be overestimated.
often do we hear the words “we want to encourage interdisciplinarity”?
Where are these disciplines supposed to meet each other?
are there good-quality restaurants in UK universities - places that
openly encourage academics to meet with each other (or with
academic-related staff). Usually they are embarrassing!
There is a
strong correlation between the consumption of fruit and vegetables and
good mental health. (You want more mad professors?)
17. Hire a scholar as leaderThe
evidence from my research shows that the best universities are led by
outstanding scholars and also that better scholars improve the future
performance of universities.
Of course leaders must be good managers with experience of leadership, but that should be assumed.
back-of-an-envelope suggestion is that the vice-chancellor, rector or
president should be at least as good as the top 10 per cent of scholars
in the institution.
18. Make sure the leader stays at least five years - and preferably moreA university leader who is in post for much less than five years is unlikely to have the institution’s best interests at heart.
my research, those universities that performed the best in the research
assessment exercise were led by scholars whose tenure was between seven
and ten years.
But vice-chancellors shouldn’t overstay, either.
19. Give the leader plenty of power (or don’t bother hiring one)Leaders
need power if they are to be effective. Don’t force them to go through
loads of committees before a decision can be made.
Give a leader
power and his or her own modest pot of money, but ensure that you have a
decent chair of the board or council acting as overseer.
20. Let the leader pick his or her own top teamA university head must have the power to pick his or her top management team.
The vice-chancellor should, if possible, select the top team within the first few months of being in post.
Top 20 ways to improve your world university ranking | Times Higher Education