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‘Higher education in Medialand’

  • 31 March 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Today’s blog is based on the remarks of HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, to the 200th seminar by the Centre for Global Higher Education.

It is fantastic to see the Centre for Global Higher Education going from strength to strength. I often log in to your events, including the recent one on China, and know how useful they are. But I had not realised there had been so many. As HEPI hosts lots of our own events, I realise what an enormous feat you have achieved in a comparatively short time.

I have never been a journalist unlike the other panellists [Anna Fazackerley, Chris Havergal, Debbie McVitty, Peter Scott and Harriet Swain]. So for good or bad, my views may seem a little more semi-detached. But I will make eight points: four more positive ones; and four less positive ones.

  1. First, I think we are very well served by the media in our sector. Not only do we have excellent specialist outlets, like the Times Higher, the daily coverage from Research Fortnight and Wonkhe, but also the main national newspapers and broadcasters continue to have education specialists. In short, higher education is better served than many other sectors in terms of the focus it receives from the media.
  2. Secondly, some of the specialist journalists have been on the education beat for a considerable time, meaning they have built up great expertise. I think, for example, of people like Branwen Jeffreys and Sean Coughlan at the BBC or the stable team at the Times Higher, which has survived more than one change in ownership. Even when journalists move publications, they often stay as education specialists. You cannot get just anything past them.
  3. Thirdly, it seems to me at least that, in recent years, higher education has won a bigger share of the total education coverage as schools have ceased to be the only game in town. I know higher education is still second fiddle in the eyes of some editors, but in the past it sometimes felt like it was barely in the orchestra. I guess I might not be so positive if I worked for the Further Education Policy Institute (if such an organisation existed), as there could be more coverage of FE, but I have no complaints about the overall volume of HE stories.
  4. Fourthly, as the former Education Editor of The Times (Rosie Bennett) noted in her recent HEPI paper, there is a better understanding of the breadth of the higher education sector than back in the days when one journalist told me to ring them only if I had a story about Oxbridge. A crucial moment in this change of heart was, I think, the front-page Daily Mail campaign on behalf of the UK’s biggest and most diverse higher education institution, the Open University, three years ago.
  5. Fifthly, and here I move on to some less positive points, I wish the media would be a little more open minded about league tables. I am not opposed to league tables: they serve a purpose and are not going away – as Richard Garner wrote in his HEPI paper of 2017. But because they are, in general, produced by one media outlet or another, they do not always get the critical oversight they deserve. The only paper I have published at HEPI that I can recall having no coverage in the UK at all was a critique of league tables. It was of the same quality as our other output; indeed, it received coverage in places like Ireland and Australia, where the main media outlets aren’t so associated with their own league tables. I know newspapers make money from rankings but it was a shame they could not find the editorial space for a critique of them.
  6. Sixthly, I wish we would focus much more on what I regard as the primary stories, such as changing demographics and the growing demand for higher education or the financial sustainability of institutions, rather than the important but nonetheless second-order issues such as grade inflation and occasional free speech violations. There is little correlation between the importance of an education story and the column inches it receives. I am not blaming the media for this – as a sector, we should do more to stop gifting journalists newsworthy culture-war stories and make sure the issues we think are more important than these are just as interesting.
  7. My seventh point comes from Rosie Bennett’s recent HEPI paper, which I have already mentioned. Her key insight is that higher education has become a consumer story. This is why, for example, the coverage of the pre-COVID strikes focused not so much on whether the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) faces an enormous deficit that institutions may struggle to fill in but on the lectures that students missed out on. I would argue that both these things are important and that, in this one instance, the pendulum perhaps swung too far in one direction by focusing almost exclusively on the effects of the strike rather than giving sufficient attention to the causes of the strike. After all, a healthy higher education sector rests on successful suppliers as well as demanding consumers.
  8. Finally, a word about social media. Our sector is at its best when it conducts civil and evidence-based debate. And, as night follows day, it is therefore at its worst on social media. For example, I recently wrote a series of three blog posts about the apparent deficit in the USS. There were no personal slights in what I wrote; the articles fitted well within HEPI’s charitable objectives; and the pieces focused on an important policy issue. I was not expecting everyone to agree with them, but neither was I expecting that a senior academic would draw a parallel between what I had written and QAnon (which Wikipedia says is a ‘conspiracy theory alleging that a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibalistic pedophiles [sic] is running a global child sex-trafficking ring … [which] plotted against former U.S. president Donald Trump while he was in office.’)

If we want the media to report what we do fairly, we can and must do better than that when we engage with each other.

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