Why are Britain’s top universities losing out to the USA?

Our new report The Transatlantic University Divide shows that Britain’s top universities are performing far less well than their US counterparts on social media platforms which are important to their reputation and to domestic and international student recruitment.

We compared the scores of the top 25 US and the top 25 UK universities in the  2011–2012 Times Higher Education World University Rankings with their social media scores based on our PRINT™  measurement system. This, as followers of Sociagility will know, evaluates five social attributes of brands across multiple social media platforms.

The good news for social media specialists is that PRINT™ social media performance scores correlate directly with the THE  World University Ranking scores. This statistically significant level of correlation had a 99.9% confidence level, ie probability of not being a chance effect. So all you University based SM folk now have another reason why you should be allowed to do more….

However, the bad news for UK practitioners is that Britains’s top higher education institutions performed, as a group, only just over half as well as their US counterparts. Their average PRINT Index™ score was 72 versus an average US score of 127.

Worse, within the combined transatlantic group, only two UK universities, Oxford and Sheffield, made it into the top ten. Harvard (home of Facebook) led the pack overall.

The UK-only PRINT™ scores were led by Oxford with Sheffield second and Cambridge third. In the US-only PRINT™ listings, Harvard led University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

So it seems to be a report card saying ‘could do better if tried harder ’ for most UK universities. With a few honourable exceptions, most of the leadership in social performance seems to be in the US and this could have implications for UK university reputation, alumni relations and recruitment.

What are the reasons for US leadership? Our study is statistical but, anecdotally, here are some possible causes.

Not only have US universities, many of which are larger, been devoting more time and effort, over longer, than most UK institutions but they have committed management support and dedicated resources across faculties and departments, not just a couple of people centrally. Reporting structures are said to be clearer and much content superior – but there is no sense of complacency. The top US universities we interviewed were not resting on their laurels but investing further in people, in listening capability, in measurement and on ensuring better value not just more volume.

One UK university leader we spoke to felt the reasons went deeper and that by and large the US institutions deserved their lead: “They have greater team spirit and this shows through in social media.”

Can UK universities do anything about it? My colleague Niall Cook previewed the results of our survey at a CIM Higher Education conference in Manchester (England!) last week and gave a list of five suggestions. These are all highlighted in the report.

Happy or unhappy reading, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are….!

PS And congratulations to Oxford and Sheffield.




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