Can the ‘Covid dividend for science’ be sustained?

Governments and the public exhibited newfound appreciation for universities during the pandemic, but will institutions be able to keep building on their prestige? Ellie Bothwell reports

October 27, 2021
A woman poses in front of a flower display dedicated to healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic
Source: Getty

Browse the THE World Reputation Rankings 2021 results


It is often said that it takes many years to build a reputation and only a few minutes to ruin it, and the results of our World Reputation Rankings over the past 11 years could be seen as supporting such a theory. The same six institutions have led the rankings every year since 2011 – albeit in a different order, except for Harvard University remaining rooted at number one. While other universities have developed their prestige and steadily grown in stature during that time, none has disturbed the stability at the summit.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought huge disruption and transformation to the international higher education sector. During such a momentous global event, have the laws of reputation changed? While the teaching and research approaches and strategies of universities during the pandemic are unlikely to turn the reputational hierarchy of global higher education completely upside down, might they shift patterns of prestige in small but noticeable ways and make the speed of reputational gain more similar to that of reputational loss?

Our World University Rankings 2022, published in September, found that universities that had published medical sciences research relating to Covid-19 received a significant boost in their citation impact and, subsequently, their overall score and rank. Have such institutions also seen a benefit in terms of their reputation?

While it is harder to draw definitive conclusions from scholars’ views than from more objective publication data, our World Reputation Rankings 2021 suggest that Covid-19 has already had some effect on the prestige of universities (although we expect to see this reflected more clearly in future years). The University of Oxford is now ranked third, up from fifth – its strongest performance (and biggest rise) since 2015 and the only change among the top six since 2017. Its research reputation got a significant boost in a year when its academics developed a coronavirus vaccine in partnership with the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

Another eye-catching result is that China joins the top 10 for the first time. Tsinghua University is now ranked 10th, up from 13th last year, swapping places with the University of Tokyo. It is the second consecutive year of growth for Tsinghua (following three years of stability), and while there are likely to be several reasons for the rise, the pandemic may be one factor. Tsinghua was one of the institutions that gained a significant citation score increase in this year’s World University Rankings after publishing high-impact medical research relating to the virus.

Chen Ken, director of the global communication office at Tsinghua, says the institution “contributed to vital research in vaccine development, Covid-19 treatments and improvements to virus detection and hospital equipment”.

She also highlights several pandemic-related initiatives at the institution, such as the establishment of the Vanke School of Public Health in April 2020 and the December 2020 launch of the Global MOOC Alliance, a network of universities and online education platforms to facilitate international cooperation in educational technologies.

The university also “convened a number of global dialogue events during the pandemic to share useful experience and collaboratively explore new ways to further improve its education and research system in the future”, Ken says.

She adds that these initiatives have “improved public awareness of Tsinghua’s commitment to addressing Covid-19” and reflect the institution’s “reputation as an emerging leader in global education”.

Caroline Wagner, Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, who has co-authored research on international collaboration patterns in Covid research, says her studies have found that Covid-related citations have gone to “more elite universities in general” and “a smaller set of institutions than we would usually see”, suggesting that the pandemic is more likely to entrench than to reshape the hierarchy of global higher education.

“It’s like in any crisis – who are you going to look towards? One of the things that happened during Covid is that we tended to look towards those with a higher reputation to begin with. You don’t have time to vet all the information yourself and to read every article. And so we tend to just revert back to reputation,” she says.

Source: 
Alamy

Another institution that has climbed in this year’s table is Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC), which ranks joint 35th (up from 38th last year), its highest position since 2014.

Rick Hart, associate vice-president of communications at UBC, says the university has been able to leverage reputational benefit from its coronavirus-related research.

“Health sciences and health innovation more generally are a real area of strength for UBC, so we use it as an area of reputation-building consistently, and have with Covid-19 as well, and will continue [to do so] after Covid-19,” he says.

“We’ve been involved in areas of research ranging from the medical through to policy and practice. However, we have focused a fair amount on the vital role that UBC researchers have played in the mRNA technology, which is a big part of the vaccines that have been rolled out around the world.”

Regarding UBC’s strategy to publicise this work, Hart says the institution created a website “dedicated entirely to dozens of research projects related to Covid-19” and launched a content marketing series to share the research and highlight the ways UBC academics, staff and students were helping others in the community through the pandemic.

“These stories are important to share not only for reputation but also to demonstrate the positive contributions that we make locally and globally,” he says.

“During those early days of the pandemic, many people around the world were looking for places and people who could provide some hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. And I think universities and the role that we play in terms of helping society manage with Covid were a natural place that helped do that. We felt that we were in a unique position to provide some of that hope and expertise as people struggled to grapple with the massive changes. And to make the most of that, we did take a strategic and comprehensive approach to our communications and marketing.”

Hart says that UBC used organic and paid traffic to share Covid-19 research stories on social media channels, while since March 2020 it has received and engaged with more than 2,000 enquiries relating to UBC’s Covid response and research.

One thing the university learned, he continues, is how crucial it is to “try to keep our ears open for what the sentiment is out there” in relation to the pandemic at any given moment, using social listening tools and market research, and then respond accordingly.

“There are so many swings with this pandemic, from people not wanting to hear about it any more because it’s all so depressing to there’s a ray of hope and people are optimistic about what life will be like again. If you’re too optimistic, you’re not paying attention to the mood of the times; and if you’re too doom and gloom, you ruin that chance to create some hope,” Hart says.

“Being nimble and flexible has been key. You can work on some stuff and say this is a great content piece, but the time isn’t quite right, so let’s reserve that for when the timing is right.”

Fiona Fox, chief executive and founding director of the UK’s Science Media Centre, says UK universities learned from their communications shortcomings before and after the Brexit vote, when they did a poor job of explaining their role.

“A lot of scientists and academics did special pleading for funding and collaboration – ‘if we have Brexit, we won’t be able to be part of these big scientific collaborations.’ And what they didn’t do was the third part of that, which is to say that the funding and the collaborations are necessary in the first place in order to be able to tackle things like Covid and to come up with clinical trials,” she says.

However, universities have “absolutely done that with Covid”, highlighting how scientists have “engaged with the wider public such that the public understand science better but also recognise the value of science in their lives”, Fox says.

Bodleian library, Oxford University
Source: 
Getty

Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, agrees.

“People have tended to see universities as places they send their 18-year-olds for a few years to grow up. But now members of the public can see what we have long known, that universities are so much more,” she says.

“Our response to Covid-19 has shown the public that universities are places where life-saving vaccines are developed, where therapeutic drugs are tested, where cutting-edge research is conducted that enables us to understand and to counter disease. It is because of the calibre and the impact of our scientific research that bright young people will want to come to Oxford to study. It is because of the calibre of our scientists and their research that scientists around the world will want to come and study in Oxford.

“For a long time, the public has associated Oxford with posh young people. Now they associate us with brilliant scientists. Now the public can see what universities are for.”

However, while there may be renewed appreciation for universities and science, one big question for higher education is whether this understanding and support from the public and governments can be sustained, and whether institutions that gained reputationally from the pandemic will be able to keep building on this prestige in subsequent years.

Hart says he would “love to believe” that the pandemic has “shined a light on the role of essential foundational research and the role it can play” as well as generated “a heightened interest in and awareness of the role of health sciences generally”, and he suggests there is now an “opportunity” for universities to ensure that this does not disappear overnight.

For instance, while mRNA technology has been applied to Covid-19 vaccines, “there’s all kinds of opportunities beyond that”, he says.

“Whether it’s taking what we’ve proven through our work on Covid-19 and applying it in other areas, or [looking at] how do we deal with Covid-19 as just another seasonal illness in the community, I think our researchers will be front and centre, and those are stories we will continue to tell,” he says.

“Humans do have short memories, but this has been so significant. A lot of the news stories in the first year were about how this is only the beginning and there’ll be future pandemics, so maybe there is something that will linger in terms of the need to prepare for the next pandemic.”

Ohio State’s Wagner explains that “once you have a reputation, it remains pretty sticky”. Thus, there is likely to be “a stickiness” to the reputation of leading universities that have managed to further bolster their prestige in relation to the pandemic.

“Oxford University, for example, comes out looking fantastic on this, having worked on the AstraZeneca vaccine. In the US, the ones that are coming out on top were already on top. So in some ways it’s just instantiated the elite structure that was already there,” she says.

However, she goes on, research collaboration is likely to continue to increase, and as these top institutions collaborate they “to some extent share some of the glory with other universities”.

“It advances science more rapidly and helps everybody. So collaboration is very much encouraged, and I think that will continue to go on,” she says.

But Fox says that while there has undoubtedly been a “Covid dividend for science”, she is “less sure” that universities will be able to continue to capitalise on renewed appreciation from the public.

One of her main concerns, which pre-dates the pandemic, is the changing role of university press officers.

“They are moving away from good old-fashioned, bog-standard science press officers, who…proactively get out there the wonderful stories of scientific discovery at their universities and find academics to answer journalists’ questions. We’ve found that kind of role disappearing in a lot of universities,” she says.

Many institutions have instead shifted towards “reputational comms, corporate comms and student comms” partly in response to criticism from the government and partly to sell the student experience, Fox says. As a result, there has been “a move away from media-first”, with institutions focusing more on creating and sharing their own content.

At the onset of the pandemic, some institutions, such as the universities of Warwick and Reading, recognised that the “media-first science press officers” were the most important press officers in the institution, Fox says. “Warwick press office instantly saw the value of making sure their wonderful modellers were part of the national discussion,” she says. However, there are other university press teams that “I’ve hardly seen or had any contact with during this pandemic, and when I did contact them they were saying they were really busy on student comms and the debates about face-to-face teaching and they just didn’t have the capacity left in the team to be doing science media relations,” she adds.

Fox says she hopes that Richardson’s words about Oxford now being associated with “brilliant scientists” will “translate into a lot of universities thinking we missed a trick there” and realising that their reputation is “enhanced by science and research comms”.

While there is “some merit in senior corporate comms people thinking our academics are just out there anyway without us”, she says many scholars are “not already well-known names in the media, are cautious and need support and media training and need a press officer to just hold their hand a bit”.

“Who does that? If that isn’t happening in a university, I suspect we’re just hearing less from those [academics],” she says.

“We’re probably, if we go down this road, taking out of the public debate hundreds and hundreds of scientists who could be in there and who I think should be in there, because they’re not getting the support of research comms.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A welcome booster shot, but will effects endure?

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