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Universities and the Media

  • 7 May 2021
  • By Matthew Andrews

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Matthew Andrews, Secretary and Registrar at the University of Gloucestershire. You can find Matthew on Twitter @HE_MPA.

On the 24 May, the University of Gloucestershire and HEPI will be co-hosting the event ‘Universities and the Media’ where we will hear from Chris Skidmore, John Gill and Kirsty Walker. You can sign up free here.

Many university activities are widely celebrated, such as developing a vaccine for COVID-19 or educating nurses, but despite this universities as institutions have been on the rough end of media attention in recent years. This includes regular coverage of high executive salaries, snowflake students, lack of free speech, tuition fees causing graduate debt, a poor record on access and participation and an apparent crisis in student mental health to mention just seven examples. 

This article in The Sun, from November last year, serves well as an example of the sort of opprobrium directed towards universities.

CRUMMY universities that dole out Mickey Mouse degrees could be slapped with £500,000 fines in a new crackdown.

Lazy higher education bosses could also be stripped of all their public funding – a move which could see them close for good.

The Uni watchdog said vice chancellors with sky-high dropout rates will also face tough new measures as the Office for Students (OfS) lashed work-shy universities for taking bumper pay cheques from teens for worthless courses.

And they warned heads that their time cashing in on the student fee gravy train will soon be over.

A similar rhetoric, though not always the same tabloid language, can be found in most national newspapers.

From the perspective of working in the sector, none of this feels fair. Sometimes, it can feel misleading. Yet the stories persist, and the higher education sector seems unable to offer an effective counter-balancing narrative.

Rosemary Bennett, in her recent paper Mixed Media: what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press (HEPI Debate Paper 26), addressed the question of what might be fuelling this intense scrutiny. ‘This is not the result of a media vendetta or secret briefings from politicians’, she concluded, ‘but of greater scrutiny – the sort of scrutiny most other sectors both public and private have become used to’. This clear analysis leads to the inevitable conclusion that the media attention is not unusual and it’s not going away. Universities therefore must find a more effective way to respond and work with the media.

One of the faults of how universities respond to this media attention is that the response can tend to focus on issues in the media coverage rather than how the sector could respond differently and more effectively. That is a debate which is desperately needed if the sector is to avoid continuing public criticism. I therefore offer six suggestions for ideas about where we might focus this debate.

  1. We have to accept that there is a legitimate interest in the way in which universities operate. In part this is because universities benefit from substantial amounts of public funding, but more importantly it is because universities are vital aspects of the national infrastructure: it is precisely because universities change lives, as much on an individual level as a global one, that scrutiny is justified. Over 2.5 million people study in higher education and around 440,000 work in the sector. We would not expect any other sector of equal size and importance to escape media attention and some of that attention will be unwelcome, uncomfortable and even unfair. We must accept the reality of the situation we face that the scale and importance of our sector justifies media attention.
  2. Given that media attention is now a fixture of university life, universities must engage more openly with debates about higher education. This can and will be uncomfortable, but too timid an approach when defending the sector or too reticent an approach when wanting to demonstrate the benefits of higher education both result in stories about the sector being defined by others. National media debates are rarely comfortable but avoiding the debate, and assuming no coverage is a good outcome, is not the solution.
  3. University leaders need to take a role in discussing issues beyond the sector. The sector can appear self-interested and inward looking, which can fuel criticism in the media. Demonstrating an awareness of the broader education sector, regional interests and topics of personal expertise could help reposition universities as places of thought leadership in the public mind. This leadership cannot be left to Vice-Chancellors alone; senior staff, whether professional or academic, have a role in using their voice to engage in public discussion.
  4. Universities lack adequate coordination at the sector level and have failed to respond to these issues collaboratively and effectively, making any response appear defensive, self-interested and awkward. This is despite the often amazing and sometimes undervalued work of UUK. But UUK cannot be expected to bring the sector together alone, the sector must want to work collectively, across mission group boundaries, accepting compromise where necessary, so that UUK can amplify existing narratives. 
  5. Being open to the public is as important as being open to politicians and decision-makers in the media. Both politicians and the media rely on and respond to public sentiment, so speaking to the public directly is both important in itself and important for the indirect influence the public exerts. Starting at a local, civic level is the logical way into building greater public interest in institutions as it is at the local level that universities can demonstrate their worth and value supporting local enterprise, civic society, cultural life and more. Universities need to engage with their communities so that they are seen as treasured local assets and not remote ivory towers.
  6. If the university sector fails to engage, old stories can re-emerge. The old idea that ‘too many people go to university’ had seemingly gone away, for example. The sector expanded massively in the 1990s and beyond, and, whether it should be applauded or not, Labour’s (in)famous 50% participation rate target represented a belief that aspiration mattered and that aspiration was valued by the public. That affirmation of aspiration had persisted at least since Robbins first jotted down his well-known principle. However, the argument has now returned despite (or maybe because of) record applications and acceptances to university during 2020/21, with the current government openly contending that too many people do indeed go to university. Universities therefore need to more openly, more frequently, and with greater confidence promote the basic tenets that underpin the sector.

Universities need to respond to criticism and explore ways of presenting themselves in a collaborative and positive way, in the media and with government but also with the public. This could enable the university sector to capture the esteem with which some university activities are already held. This debate and the attempt to reorientate coverage of universities is needed not simply to ensure the benefits of higher education continue to develop but it is also vital to avoid the erosion of such critical aspects of the sector as institutional autonomy and the importance of aspiration.

To progress this debate, the School of Media at the University of Gloucestershire, working in partnership with HEPI, have organised an on-line event on 24 May. This will be an occasion to hear from and pose questions to experienced voices working in politics, the media, and universities. Chris Skidmore, former Universities Minister, John Gill, Editor of THE, and Kirsty Walker, Director of UCL Media Relations and a former journalist at the Daily Express and Daily Mail, will discuss a positive way forward for universities and the media to work together to provide incredible stories, respond to criticism and create a framework for future working. Booking is free and everyone is welcome.

You can sign up for the event here.

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