It’s time for the media to work with universities, not against us

The next school year is going to be challenging enough as it is without the skewed and absolutist coverage we’ve seen in the media lately, says Harriet Dunbar-Morris

Harriet Dunbar-Morris's avatar
The University of Portsmouth
7 Jul 2021
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Newspaper front covers. The media should work with universities to ease the burden of an already-difficult new academic year
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Students want to know how we’re going to teach them in the new academic year. They expect us to be clear and transparent about it. But is that even possible, especially against the backdrop of hostile media coverage of the upheaval at universities?

In meetings with senior leadership, students’ unions exhort us to tell our student bodies more than we told them this time last year. Meanwhile, the government insists that we must tell our applicants plainly what they can expect. And we must do it right now.

But since no one has a crystal ball, we don’t know what teaching in September can be like, let alone what it will be like.

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that plans can change and a “definite” is often anything but. Can we plan for full classrooms? Will students be vaccinated? Once? Twice? Will international students be able to travel? Will they have to quarantine? Will staff and students feel safe on campus?

Of course, we want to tell our students what to expect. We’re making all the plans and taking all the decisions we can, but it’s happening in a vacuum of information. Well, not quite a vacuum. In fact, we’re doing everything we can in a stark media spotlight. Everything is made more difficult by the way much of the media is reporting many university decisions, such as those over lectures, in unhelpful, absolutist ways.

The decision to use a blended approach next year, for example, has often been reported with misleading headlines suggesting that universities are offering no lectures and keeping courses online. This is little more than clickbait and completely disruptive. Far from doing away with lectures, most universities are looking into how we deliver them to better meet the needs of students in a changed world.

Students have long voted with their feet on lectures. Feedback on the blended approach gave a thumbs up from many students on recorded lectures provided as short chunks and combined with other interactive, staff-mediated sessions. We found this internally at Portsmouth, as has Ellen Buck at Suffolk.

Would the media have us ignore students’ feedback? Does the media even know that not all teaching at university is done via lectures? It doesn’t seem so. And, perhaps more importantly, do university applicants and their families know this? If they don’t, some of the reporting in recent times certainly isn’t going to help them find out.

If we’re to make a success of next year’s student experience – which is already going to be challenging enough for everyone involved − we need the media’s help to explain it to prospective students and their influencers. Too much of the media is hindering us by focusing on traditional elements of university education that were already being voted on by students’ feet (not turning up) or pens (satisfaction surveys) before the pandemic even hit.

I say that universities and the media need to work together to better explain what it is to be a student at university in the 2020s – and that extends to the narrative around paying a £9,250 fee as well. Yes, most students pay a hefty fee, so there is undoubtedly a value-for-money discussion to be had. But that’s why we frequently ask for students’ views and opinions on their experience. We try to cater for their needs, but the reality is we have to evolve, too.

As with schools, universities have finally begun to grasp the digital era. We’re preparing students for careers that will likely see them collaborate with colleagues across the globe. Today’s workplace has little room for sitting back and listening for an hour to gather a handful of key points. The workplace, and the lecture, has been flipped on its head. It is fast paced and focused, and by moving to a blended approach we’re modelling that for our students.

If we needed to explain what self-directed and independent learning was to applicants and students before the pandemic, it has become even more important now. According to the comments we’ve seen in student feedback, this has become somewhat confused with the shift to blended learning.

So let’s see no more out-of-date and stereotypical talk of dons and freshers week in the media. Our staff and students are well past that. Let’s move the reporting on to blended provision (both face-to-face and online) and how students can engage with it to enable their learning. Most importantly, let’s see helpful headlines designed to support students in a changed world.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is dean of learning and teaching and a reader in higher education at the University of Portsmouth.

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