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What to make of the fuss over ‘Following the pound’

  • 26 November 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

Last week, I wrote a blog predicting our newest paper, which looks at the uses of tuition fees, would turn out to be one of our most controversial ever.

That prediction has already turned out to be true, but not for the reasons I outlined. I had thought challenge would come from people inside the sector who did not want internal institutional finances exposed to light and air. But perhaps because it has been obvious for a while that more transparency is coming irrespective of whether the mass of finance directors want it or not, the paper turned out to be contentious for other reasons.

People generally took aim at the press coverage of the report rather than the report itself. Some of that coverage included headlines about how less than half of fee income goes on teaching.

But, personally, as one of the co-authors, I make no complaint about the way the report was written up. It is vitally important that higher education is covered accurately in the media and I would be the first to point out any serious factual inaccuracies, but I didn’t see any inaccurate reporting. Instead, I saw sub-editors take the single most dramatic number in the report and blow it up into a large font – which is, after all, their job.

There are three other reasons why I don’t think the press coverage was unreasonable.

  1. The fact that around 40-45% of each student’s fees goes on the direct costs of teaching comes from institutions’ own published fee breakdowns, some of which were used as case studies in our report. If this is considered to be an inadequate measure of teaching because, for example (and as we made very clear), it excludes things like the buildings in which students get taught, then it is in our control as a sector to choose a more expansive definition of teaching costs when telling students where their fees go. Indeed, part of the point of our report was to urge the sector to own the transparency issue before it is too late.
  2. Secondly, I don’t complain because every article I read went way beyond the headline to explain very clearly that the overwhelming majority of fee income, whether officially classified as ‘teaching’ or not, benefits students. That was perhaps the single main finding in our report and I think it came across clearly in the coverage – I even had a fascinating conversation with Matthew Wright on talkRADIO and another with Iain Dale in LBC about how nuanced the picture is. Such conversations would not have happened without that morning’s newspaper coverage but, hopefully, they ensured more people know some basic facts about university finances.
  3. Thirdly, I don’t complain because policymakers need to understand the consequences of changing the amount of money available to educate each student, whether that happens by changing the fee cap, altering the amount of teaching grant or some other measure. Having a day’s national press coverage looking at university finances was therefore long overdue, at least to my mind. (From a quick glance, I think I’m right in saying we had the busiest day on our website since our major report on international students last January – so there was clearly broad and deep interest in the issue.)

One HEPI report which I think has never had the impact it deserves is last year’s report by the UK’s longest serving education journalist, Richard Garner. It talks in detail about how the university sector can best engage with the media and I would urge anyone to read it before they send an outraged Tweet about how higher education institutions and the higher education policy debate get written up.

One of the lessons in the paper is the degree to which journalists are influenced by the information and strategies of university communication departments, so again this is partly (but not completely) in our own hands.

Earlier this year, we also published a blog on similar themes by Jack Grimston, formerly the Education Editor at the Sunday Times, which is also well worth a read.

Finally, I personally believe we are lucky to have such good educational journalism in the the UK. Major national newspapers still have dedicated education editors (and the Guardian still has its Tuesday education pages) and we have a thriving specialist media – think Times Higher Education, Wonkhe and the Times Educational Supplement, not to mention Schools Week, FE News and so on.

Yes, I sometimes wish the coverage was more positive and, yes, I sometimes wish higher education institutions got as much coverage as schools and, yes, I sometimes wish all universities got as much coverage as Oxbridge.

But just as it is not a core job of the higher education sector to please the media, it’s not the job of the media to please the sector either; it’s their job to inform the public and hold those in power to account. And, more often than not, they seem to do it well.

1 comment

  1. Mike Ratcliffe says:

    I think you’re broadly right about the coverage and our HE media in particular, but can we make an exception for the ‘snowflake hunters’, who spend their weeks looking for stories (via search engines or copying out student papers) and then collect a comment from an outraged professor (probably called Alan or Frank or Geoffrey)?
    This weekly drip-feed must an effect on policy makers…

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