Equality measures in universities need independent oversight

The readers’ editors employed by some quality newspapers offer a model for how to protect and promote universities’ core values, argues Priya Rajasekar

September 19, 2020
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The philosopher and cultural theorist Gary Hall describes the current disruption of higher education as the “Uberification of the university”. The Covid-19 pandemic and the opening up of the relatively protected spaces of university campuses to the digital platform economy have put that process on steroids.

Almost overnight, the very definition of a university classroom has changed as large amounts of teaching have been moved online. Even before the pandemic, a number of tech giants, such as Google and Facebook, had begun offering certificated programmes through popular platforms such as Coursera. At a time of acute uncertainty and budgetary constraints, the future of universities depends to a large extent on their being able to offer something that such flashy short courses can’t.

That unique offering can be summarised in the word “scholarship”: knowledge acquired through painstaking research that is subject to constant scrutiny and critical reflection.

At the same time, universities face a fundamental challenge from a quite different direction. The killing of George Floyd reinvigorated calls for greater plurality in the curriculum through decolonisation and increased diversity among universities’ leadership, staff and students. Furthermore, demographic projections point to a growing demand for higher education from African and Asian countries, in particular Nigeria, India and China. There is little doubt that decolonisation will be both a moral and a business imperative for higher education in the years to come.

In thinking through what needs to be done, both to preserve financial stability and broaden the relevance and appeal of curricula, I want to draw on the seemingly unlikely parallel of newspapers.

Like universities, they have a pronounced public-interest function and have found themselves cannibalised by content providers and platforms that refuse to acknowledge their responsibility as publishers. A practice that ought to be based on trust, fact and verification has been reduced, in many cases, to a business that thrives on sensation and spectacle to drive clicks.

Yet high standards of professionalism are preserved in certain publications, and it is here we can find valuable lessons for higher education, particularly in the area of decolonisation.

Leading news organisations maintain a clear line of separation between their editorial and business interests. The readers’ editor at The Guardian or The Hindu, for instance, acts as an embedded representative of their readers’ interests and offers independent oversight of the journalistic decisions made by their publication’s editors and reporters. Transparent, public engagement with the concerns and queries raised by readers then offers some of the necessary ethical checks and balances.

Though other newspapers, such as The New York Times, have axed similar positions in recent years, they still point the way forward. Translated into a higher education context, this could mean universities’ appointing an independent but embedded equality auditor (or team of auditors), who can drive the diversity and decolonisation agenda without fear or favour. If they were given oversight of crucial areas such as student and staff recruitment and the design and quality assurance of taught courses and research programmes, this role could play a major role in driving change – and attracting more students from different backgrounds.

Higher education could also find inspiration in The Elements of Journalism, a statement of essential principles published by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, which has been widely adopted by serious journalists as a sort of manifesto.

If “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”, as Kovach and Rosenstiel proclaim, higher education’s first obligation is to its students and the wider community. If journalists need to maintain an independence from the people they cover, academics – and, even more so, those responsible for equality and diversity within universities – should maintain an independence from the business interests of their institutions and the political interests of funding sources, including governments. That, ultimately, is what will maintain their readership and their student enrolments respectively.

Just as journalism needs to do more to report on issues that matter, such as social inequalities and climate change, instead of being driven by what sells, higher education, too, should focus on addressing these issues – and resist any pressures to cut back on arts and humanities degrees, for example. And just as newspapers need to preserve a forum for public criticism of their journalism, universities need to offer an independent platform for students and academics to air their grievances. Both need to foster a climate that is friendly to civilised dissent and conducive to mutual understanding and compromise.

Strange as it may seem, inspiration can be found in a recent initiative by Facebook, which has set up an oversight board consisting of high-profile and highly respected figures from around the world. The terms and direction of this initiative demonstrate a strategic and calculated return to the basics by the much-criticised platform: an attempt to demonstrate a commitment to the public interest.

Platform businesses such as Facebook clearly realise that, ultimately, they are in the business of trust and credibility. To survive and thrive in the future, in competition with these platforms, both the news media and higher education need to demonstrate even higher levels of commitment to these core values. 

Priya Rajasekar is a lecturer in the School of Media and Performing Arts at Coventry University. She researches the geopolitics of knowledge and teaches journalism.

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