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Higher Education in the front line: universities, the media and the wider community

  • 8 May 2018

This guest blog has been kindly provided by Jack Grimston, formerly Education Correspondent and then Deputy Political Editor of the Sunday Times. It is based on a talk he gave at HEPI’s recent Policy Briefing Forum.

As only an occasional visitor to the world of higher education, I thought I should try to get myself up to speed with the latest issues in the university world if I was going to hold my own before a HEPI audience.

In a moment of brain-freeze brought on by the Department for Education’s accounting treatment of student interest receivable, I put this plan aside.

It is too easy to lose sight of the obvious reason universities are in the media all the time. It is not because of the admittedly critical issues of fees, widening participation or even teaching students.

The reason is that academics do extraordinarily interesting work, pushing knowledge forward and finding out the things people want to hear about.

Institutions and academics are doing better and better at taking that research and expertise out to the wider world. The quality and comprehensibility of academic interviews and press releases are increasingly impressive and improving all the time.

I think of what Ocean Science at places such as Exeter has contributed to changing public behaviour over plastic in the seas. Then I think of what Mary Beard has done to promote the cause of classical scholarship.

I started to register only after I finished covering education at the Sunday Times just how much journalists in other spheres – whether health, business, environment or crime — speak to academics. In politics, the area I moved on to covering, if you ask a journalist about Strathclyde, they think of Professor Sir John Curtice. Those incidental encounters with institutions through their experts can create a long-lasting positive feeling.

The policy side of universities and the media is a less happy story.

When I covered education—briefly in the early 2000s, then solidly from 2007 to 2012 – the direction of travel was relatively predictable.

After each reform and a fight, students and graduates would take on a steadily greater share of the costs. Advocates devoted impressive amounts of time and effort behind the scenes to winning over journalists and politicians.

There were editors who were prepared to argue to their own audiences, many with children going to university, that paying more was good.

It was a real achievement. The rest of the state sector has been squeezed, often heavily, but universities far less so – and yes, to most people mass higher education is in the state sector.

My most recent foray was in 2017 to advise the think tank UK2020 on a report – which proposed among other recommendations that universities should pay part of the interest on student loans.

By then, the tide that had been rising from roughly the Dearing report to 2012 seemed on the turn. We don’t know much about the funding review, but we can be pretty sure it will not grant another blanket fee-rise.

What has changed?

The wider climate of public opinion has moved on since the financial crisis with the jolt of loathing in the West for global-market capitalism and distrust of commercialisation in the public sector. These attitudes, always strong among students and academics, now seem more in tune with the world.

On the left, many in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party see higher education as a semi-privatised industry ripe for renationalisation.

Relations with the right are more chilly than they were. Some Tories were alienated by corporate-level university support for Remain. Then the outspoken opposition to Theresa May’s immigration policy, whatever the merits of the case, looked like the wrong call once the former Home Secretary had arrived in Number 10.

Meanwhile, some of those who supported the 2010 reforms feel let down. MPs lost seats, one party was almost destroyed, there were riots.

They saw universities that offered – in return for earmarked funding and political pain – near-uniform fees, only modest improvements in teaching and soaring senior management pay. Whatever the business justification, handling of that third issue has sometimes bordered on satire.

It is inevitable universities will be subject to regular scrutiny and attack. It is partly a function of just how big and influential they are – and funding them is a high-stakes and fraught part of public policy.

I hope this never means they shy away from fighting their corner. But it also means picking battles, developing a thick skin and handling journalists adeptly – as many practitioners in universities already do.

What I know about the media is not typical. My education journalism was in one, right-of-centre Sunday newspaper – a rather specialised branch of traditional media.

But as universities broaden the range of media they deal with, I believe relationships with specialist journalists in selected outlets will still have a role.

They are a way of keeping the number of people media professionals have to deal with to a manageable size. Stories anyway filter out widely through social media and get followed up everywhere straightaway if they are any good.

With tongue only slightly in cheek, journalists tend to be:

  • suspicious pessimists;
  • team players only through gritted teeth, competing with colleagues for space;
  • over-caffeinated, though less likely to be hung over than in the past;
  • worrying on the train home if their industry will exist next month;
  • and disdainful of management-speak.

They are likely to be working on at least three stories so are well disposed to anyone who lightens their load with graphics, video clips or an academic who pretends to be delighted to pick up the phone at 11.30pm.

Journalists are used to being accused of spin, hype and selective quotation – who knows, they may on occasion have been guilty. But they do not like getting things wrong – I hated making mistakes. It is not worth the grief from management and corrections are embarrassing.

Journalists react negatively to words like ‘narrative’ and ‘message’. They are clearly things organisations need to formulate but are best deployed with subtlety and obliqueness.

The priority for news journalists is finding things out – not language. I think of the regular attempt to rebrand fees as graduate contributions. I tried this on a News Editor years ago after being badgered by various contacts. News editors have good nonsense detectors and this one asked me what of substance had changed to justify the new label. The sheepish answer was ‘nothing’.

It is a reminder that often when a message is not getting across, it is the substance that needs looking at, the spin cannot always take the strain.

For further information on how universities can work most effectively with the media, see HEPI’s 2017 report by Richard Garner, Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world.

1 comment

  1. Conor King says:

    In Australia at least the charge was a contribution first and only now become a fee. The difference is that a contribution explicitly is only about a bit of the cost. A fee formally tends to cover the whole thing which if you are lucky the Government might help you with. The change in language also helps alter how people assess the income based payment schemes – when a contribution, anything paid in was a good thing, a bonus for Government bottom line (since it paid the lot prior to the Australian HECS). Now we talk of ‘loans’ and ‘debt’ allowing moral guilt about debt to kick in – it is now bad not to pay off the whole thing, let alone none of it.

    Hence language does matter in these things.

    On a small point, the main time I have encountered ‘narrative’ is when I was told by the lead Australian HE news section that my uni grouping did not fit the ‘narrative’ and hence our arguments would not be reported, thanks very much for offering them.

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