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.
The best 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.
Finally, 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
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
The same is true in academic departments or schools. Why make life
difficult for ourselves by hiring people who are much better than us?
The status quo is much preferable, at least among the established
faculty - the younger ones are more likely to want to raise standards.
Create a 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.
As 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.
Start 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.
Make sure 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.
Researchers usually receive positive feedback only from colleagues in
their field - assessment is by their peers, which leads to publishing,
promotion and, ultimately, pay.
Academics will show loyalty to a university, but the institution must do more than get them to fill in forms.
Ensure that one or more members of staff - preferably in the HR
department - know exactly who your outstanding people are, and whether
they are happy or not.
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.
This 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
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.
Any committee 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
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.
Being 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.
University strategy is usually initiated and led by the
vice-chancellor. Leaders should have control of the strategy and the
concomitant powers to make it happen.
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.
In 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
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 rehab!
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
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?
Red 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.
All 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 administration.
This is especially relevant when trying to encourage scholars to take management jobs.
If 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
11. As a leader, be accessibleNot just to your top team. Have a policy of hearing what others are trying to say.
Be 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?
Be 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.
If 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.
Similarly, the role of administrators is sometimes viewed as “less
important” by academics. But the relationship between academics and
administrators is interdependent.
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
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.
Short, concise, relevant courses (half-day maximum) should be offered
with necessary incentives to researchers throughout their careers -
little but relatively often.
(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?
A second important question is: do your board members really
understand the business of universities? Do they know what your
university does best?
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.
These 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.
Being 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.
How often do we hear the words “we want to encourage
interdisciplinarity”? Where are these disciplines supposed to meet each
Rarely 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.
A 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.
In 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
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.