For better news coverage, university leaders must join the debate

Scrutiny is inevitable but universities should do more to promote their teaching and their place in civil society, says Rosemary Bennett

February 18, 2021
Man with megaphone for a face
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Universities are front page news in the UK these days – but not in a way that many see as a cause for celebration.

Overpaid bosses more interested in new buildings than educating the next generation, adopting questionable admissions practices and giving out first-class degrees like confetti: that is what the public thinks of if they rely on national newspapers and the main broadcasters for their information about higher education.

Some vice-chancellors and their colleagues seem genuinely bewildered about how they have gone from national treasures to villains in a few short years and wonder if it is payback for supporting Remain in the Brexit referendum or some other form of media vendetta.

From the point of view of the newsroom, where I have spent most of my career, it is not such a surprise. In Mixed Media, a debate paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute, I explain why it has happened and what universities can do about it.

It is certainly true that universities are deemed much more newsworthy than they once were. According to the Factiva media monitoring database, there were 7,193 stories about universities in the UK’s leading 16 national daily and Sunday newspapers in 2020, up from 4,644 five years before.

But what this reflects is not an orchestrated bashing but simply the result of the greater scrutiny that is a natural consequence of higher education’s growth. Every significant part of public and commercial life is scrutinised closely by the media. Every day, newspapers and broadcasters, local and national, carry stories about how public or customers’ money is being spent, where favours are perceived to be done, poor governance, questionable customer service, poor value for money and their long-time favourite, fat cat pay. Media scrutiny has now caught up with universities.

However, something else has also affected both the tone and quantity of education stories. Following the trebling of English tuition fees to £9,250 a year, resulting in average graduate debts of £50,000, universities have become a major source of concern about public spending and a major consumer story.

The fact that so much graduate debt will ultimately be borne by future taxpayers – as few students will fully repay their income-contingent loans – means that it is no longer just the energetic pack of education journalists who are interested in what is going on in universities: political and economics correspondents are, too.

And while young people may have shown themselves to be remarkably price-insensitive when it comes to choosing where and what to study, their parents are not – and these parents are newspapers’ paying customers and broadcasters’ audiences. These canny consumers want to know not just what their children’s lifetime earnings might be or what profession they could get into, but what they will get for their money while on campus. Correspondence with readers about universities swiftly reverts to a discussion of what precisely a three-year tuition outlay of £27,750 actually buys. It is the lens through which everything else is viewed.

Consumer stories are a different style of reporting from policy stories. They are more emotional, using colour and case studies liberally. They are campaigning in tone, calling for action or redress, and the rules of balance that apply to policy stories are to some extent waived. Generally, the media is the on the side of the little person: the student, in this case. Universities, fairly or not, are the bad guys.

As consumer champions, journalists have found plenty to write in recent years. There are new datasets, such as the Longitudinal Education Outcomes and the teaching excellence framework, measuring graduate salaries and (controversially) judging teaching quality respectively. A new regulator, the Office for Students, is keen to make a mark. And vice-chancellors’ pay, the rise in unconditional offers and the fast-growing proportion of first-class degrees formed a trio that pushed more or less every button for consumer reporters.

Stories about free speech and cancel culture always find a prominent spot, too. And universities have not helped themselves by often dismissing these issues as exaggerated and peripheral. All that does is make journalists redouble their efforts.

So what can universities do about being cast as the perpetual bad guy? My advice is to join public debate.

Universities are fantastically good at promoting their research. Their findings fill the news schedules every day – and not just during a pandemic. But they need to put as much time and effort into promoting how they are educating their students. What new forms of teaching have proved successful, for example? How do they plan to help the Covid-19 generation of undergraduates catch up with missed studies? What are they going to do to stop English literature going the way of modern foreign languages? Why are so many students going on to do a master’s – and what are they getting out of it?

Universities also need to join the rest of the education sector more fully. Education is one of the most contested areas of public debate yet rarely do senior university figures step forward to say what they think. The debate over the future of GCSEs and A levels is a case in point. Change is afoot and universities, with their wide range of teaching and assessment methods, have expertise that would be very valuable. Please speak up.

Vice-chancellors and their senior colleagues are typically successful academics and are running multimillion-pound businesses than confront complex issues as diverse as vast construction projects and international partnerships to teenage mental health and sexual harassment. They are at the sharp end of the culture wars and the free speech debate. They are highly knowledgeable about central and regional government and their local communities. Yet how many vice-chancellors ever appear in mainstream news panel programmes, where broad views are required?

These appearances are challenging and carry risk. They require lengthy preparation. But they are a platform not just to raise the profiles of individual leaders and institutions but to demonstrate that universities as a whole are a vital part of the economy and wider society – and not just hard-nosed commercial businesses intent on extracting as much money from students as possible.

There will be no shortage of stories about and relevant to universities in the years ahead. I hope they see this as an opportunity and not a threat.

Rosemary Bennett is a journalist with more than 20 years’ experience on national newspapers and was education editor of The Times from 2017 until 2020. Mixed Media: what universities need to know about journalists so they can get a better press is published by Hepi.

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